Just like buckling up when you get in a car or putting on sunscreen before hitting the beach, getting your annual flu shot is just one of those things everyone should do for their health. “It’s the best way we have to protect ourselves from the influenza, which isn’t as trivial a disease as people think it is,” says Kelly Moore, MD, associate director for immunization education at Immunization Action Coalition. “The flu can trigger heart attacks, strokes, and severe pneumonia, not to mention cause death—and while it’s rare, that can happen even if you’re young and healthy.” In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 410,000 to 740,000 people went to the hospital last year because of the flu and 24,000 to 62,00 people died.
So why don’t more people get the flu vaccine? A common myth is that it just doesn’t work that well. But that’s not true. “Every season, we make a new vaccine designed to match the flu viruses that are expected to circulate later in the winter,” says Moore. Sometimes the vaccine isn’t as effective as experts would have hoped, but even if the specific strains aren’t exactly right, the vaccine can make your illness less severe if you do end up catching it. Plus, there are no known downsides: “The vaccine is incredibly accessible and convenient and safe,” says Moore.
All of that is true any year, but this year, with COVID-19 already keeping hospital beds full, it’s even more important for people to get their flu shot. Here’s why:
It’s easy to confuse COVID-19 and the flu
“The symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu are very similar, so if you get the flu, you’re going to end up taking pretty extreme measures just in case it might be COVID-19,” says Moore. That means quarantining for 10 days after symptoms go away, which isn’t something most people will want to do. The main way to know for sure which illness you have is to take a COVID-19 test, which could be harder to come by as demand ramps up in the winter.
Many hospitals may already be overwhelmed
A bad flu season can stress hospitals in normal times. And right now, hospitals are already seeing that strain due to COVID-19. “Anything you can do to avoid having to go to the hospital with a preventable illness like the flu, you need to be doing,” says Moore. “You have to remember that if hospitals are overwhelmed, they may not have room for someone having a stroke or heart attack.”
You don’t want to get COVID-19 and the flu at the same time
Not a lot is known about how these two illnesses interact, but it’s better not to find out. “It’s possible to come down with both of them simultaneously—the viruses don’t take turns,” says Moore. “We saw in China last year that people who had both were much sicker than those who had only one of the illnesses.”
To help stay as healthy as possible, the CDC recommends getting your shot before the end of October (although if you miss that cut-off, it’s still worth getting it as soon as you can).
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