Posted by Solv, September 15, 2020 (last updated on November 20, 2020)
It’s an understatement to say that this year's flu season is certainly different from most. With the convergence of COVID and the 2020-2021 flu season it’s important that you’re prepared for what’s ahead this fall and winter. Last year's flu season had nearly 40 million illnesses, 410,000 flu-related hospitalizations and 24,000 flu-related deaths and on average, between 3-11% of the U.S. population gets infected every year. While those numbers are scary in a normal year, the uncertainty due to COVID has everyone's concerns elevated, so it's best to take any precautions you can you help alleviate those concerns and reduce your potential infection risk.
As with any other type of illness, prevention is the best protection. With the 2020-2021 flu season approaching full swing, now is the time to start planning ahead for how you’ll keep yourself and your family safe and healthy. Keep reading to find out what the flu is, the pros and cons of getting the flu shot, how the vaccine works, and where you can get your annual flu shot.
What is the flu?
If you begin to notice symptoms like sneezing, coughing, and congestion, you may wonder if you have a common cold or the flu. Since both are contagious viral infections, it can be easy to confuse the two. However, learning to identify the difference is important because unmonitored, the flu can turn into a more severe illness like pneumonia or bronchitis.
The influenza virus affects the lung, nose, and throat, and can be spread from skin to skin contact, exposure to a contaminated surface, through saliva, or by airborne respiratory droplets (expelled into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes).
In general, flu symptoms tend to come on more abruptly, are more severe, and can last anywhere from a few days to two weeks. The symptoms of the flu can include:
- Sudden, excessive fatigue
- Body aches
- Sore throat
- A persistent cough
- Tightness of the chest
- Wheezing, runny nose and congestion
- Diarrhea, nausea and vomiting
If you catch the flu, your immune system creates antibodies to fight off the infection. Most of the time rest and plenty of fluids are enough to recover from on your own. However, severe flu symptoms should always be treated by your primary care doctor or at an urgent care center. If left untreated, persistent or acute symptoms could cause complications and require hospitalization. For the flu or any other urgent medical need, you can use Solv to book a same-day urgent care appointment in as little as two taps.
When does the 2020-2021 flu season start?
In the United States, October through May is considered flu season. Most people will get the flu between late December and early March, which are typically the coldest months of the year. The cold weather combined with the low humidity allow flu virus particles to remain in the air for longer, making it easier for them to spread from person to person.
It’s no coincidence that there’s an uptick in viral illness when children start back to school. The cooler weather and the close proximity to other kids make contagious illnesses more likely. Once school-aged children begin getting sick, it’s more common to see adults and younger kids catch those same viruses.
Who needs a flu shot for the 2020-2021 flu season?
As a general guideline, the CDC recommends that everyone 6 months or older should receive a flu shot. It’s especially important for people who have a high risk of developing complications from the flu to receive the vaccine. This includes:
- Adults 65 years and older
- Children younger than 2 years old1
- Individuals with neurologic and neurodevelopment conditions
- Individuals with blood disorders (such as sickle cell disease)
- Individuals with chronic lung disease
- Individuals with endocrine disorders
- Individuals with heart disease
- Individuals with kidney diseases
- Individuals with liver disorders
- Individuals with metabolic disorders
- People who are obese with a body mass index [BMI] of 40 or higher
- People younger than 19 years old on long-term aspirin- or salicylate-containing medications.
- People with a weakened immune system due to disease or medications
- People who have had a stroke
- Pregnant women and women up to 2 weeks after the end of pregnancy
- American Indians and Alaska Natives
- People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
Children younger than 6 months and people with severe allergies to the flu vaccine or any ingredient it contains should not get the flu shot. If you’re uncertain about whether you or someone in your family should get a flu shot, it’s best to talk to your doctor and get a personalized recommendation.
When should you get a flu shot?
It takes roughly two weeks for the body to develop antibodies against the vaccine. If you’re exposed to the influenza virus before you get the vaccine, or within the two-week time frame after you get it, you can still catch the flu. For this reason, the CDC recommends that adults get vaccinated against the flu by the end of October, with the best time to get vaccinated being in September or October.
Flu vaccines are usually made available starting in September until about mid-November, so even if you miss the recommended window, it’s never too late to get vaccinated as it will still be able ot protect you through the end of the 2021 flu season.
How does the flu vaccine work?
Flu vaccines work by stimulating your body’s immune system to create antibodies — large proteins that neutralize harmful bacteria and viruses. The antibodies developed as a reaction to the flu shot help to fight off any viral infection that you’re exposed to during flu season.
This year, getting a flu vaccine is more important than ever because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic
How effective is the flu vaccine?
The efficacy of a flu shot varies from year to year, and between individuals. The factors that determine how well the flu shot prevents illness include the age and health of the person receiving the flu shot and the similarity between the strains circulating and the strains vaccinated against. Overall, the CDC has found that receiving a flu shot lowers the risk of catching the flu by about 40 to 60%. Trust us, those are odds worth considering if you’re unsure about getting the flu shot.
Can the flu shot help prevent COVID-19?
No, since the flu and COVID are separate types of infections, being vaccinated against the flu shot will not prevent you from getting COVID. It’s still very important to practice all of the safety procedures, such as social distancing, frequently washing your hands, wearing a mask, avoiding touching your face and staying home if you’re sick to help prevent infection and the spread of COVID.
However, if you are vaccinated against the flu it will help your provider better determine what type of infection you might have if you do in fact become sick during flu season.
Can I have COVID and the flu at the same time?
Yes, it’s possible to have both the flu and COVID which is why it’s more important than ever to get your flu vaccine and get it early in the flu season.
While there are many similarities between the two infections–both can be spread from person to person from coughing, sneezing or talking and both can still be spread by an infected person several days before/after their symptoms appear–but there are also fundamental differences. First, there is a vaccine for the flu, while there still is no vaccine for COVID-19. Second, the death rate of COVID-19 seems to be higher than the death rate of the seasonal flu. Finally, COVID-19 while spread in similar ways to the flu is more contagious especially among specific populations and age groups.
Unfortunately, having the flu does not make you less likely to get COVID and vice versa., since they’re separate types of infections they don’t provide immunity to the other–which is why the flu shot is a helpful tool in mitigating against the risk of getting the flu this season and helping to narrow down on what infection you have in the case that you get sick.
Common symptoms and side effects of the flu shot
The flu shot has, time and again, proven to be the most effective means of preventing the flu. Still, it’s normal to wonder what the symptoms of getting a flu shot are and if it’s worth the risk. Let’s take a look at some of the possible symptoms and side effects of a flu shot.
Common mild symptoms of a flu shot
Most of these symptoms will be mild and will go away on their own within a few days.
Rare side effects of a flu shot
If you experience any of these, seek medical attention right away.
On that note, it’s still safe to say that the many benefits associated with getting a flu shot far outweigh the risks. These benefits include:
- Reduced risk of getting the flu
- Reduced chance of being hospitalized with flu-related complications, especially for young children, the elderly, and people with diabetes or chronic lung conditions
- Less severe flu symptoms if you do get it
- Reduced risk of flu-related respiratory illness in pregnant women and their babies
- Lowered rates of cardiac problems for people with heart disease
As always, if you’re concerned about getting a flu shot or any other vaccine this year, it’s important to have a conversation with your doctor.
What you need to know about flu shots
Each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) conducts research on which influenza viruses are most likely to spread, which are making people ill, and how effective the previous year’s vaccines were at protecting against those viruses. The WHO then gives their findings to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), who makes the final call on which flu vaccine viruses will be included in the upcoming season’s flu shots.
Since there are many strains of flu viruses that change every year, this process is an important part of developing safe and effective vaccines. Here’s what you need to know about the 2020-2021 flu shots.
Types of flu shots for the 2020-2021 flu season
There are three types of flu viruses: types A, B, and C. Type A tends to be more serious and is likely to mutate into a new strain that people haven’t developed a resistance to. Type B flu viruses are less serious but most often affect young children. Type C causes illnesses similar to a cold.
When it comes to flu season, researchers find that there are nearly always one or two strains of Type A and Type B virus circulating.
In response to the identified strains, there are two common vaccinations available each year:
- Trivalent — this vaccine protects against three strains of the flu: two A strains and one B strain. The trivalent vaccines have traditionally been the most popular and affordable flu vaccine.
- Quadrivalent — this vaccine offers protection against four strains: two A strains and two B strains. For the 2020-2021 flu season all regular-dose flu shots will be quadrivalent and protect from all 4 strains of the flu virus.
There are several options for flu vaccines this year–your doctor or a provider at an urgent care clinic can advise which type of flu shot will be best for you, as well as answer any questions you have about what is in the flu shot. However, the vaccine options are:
- Standard dose flu shots
- High-dose shots for people 65 years+
- Shots made with adjuvant for people 65 years+
- Shots made with virus grown in cell culture. No eggs are involved in the production of this vaccine. (This vaccine made for people with severe egg allergies but is only available to those over the age of 18.)
- Shots made using a vaccine production technology (recombinant vaccine) that do not require having a candidate vaccine virus (CVV) sample to produce.
- Live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV). A vaccine made with attenuated (weakened) live virus that is given by nasal spray.
Which virus strains are in the 2020-2021 flu shots?
For the 2020-2021 flu season, the FDA has cleared the following strains for each vaccine:
Trivalent (three-component) Vaccines:
- A/Guangdong-Maonan/SWL1536/2019 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus (updated)
- A/Hong Kong/2671/2019 (H3N2)-like virus (updated)
- B/Washington/02/2019 (B/Victoria lineage)-like virus (updated)
- The three recommended viruses above, plus B/Phuket/3073/2013-like (Yamagata lineage) virus.
Where can you get a flu shot?
We’re not yet in the thick of flu season, which makes it the perfect time to start planning for when you’ll get your vaccine. Especially given the heightened importance of getting your flu shot during the COVID pandemic, it’s important for you to start thinking about flu shots for you and your family to keep everyone safe this fall.
While there may be some updates for where you can get the flu shot this year due to COVID, however most urgent care centers and pharmacies offer walk-in flu shots for every member of the family but that can end up taking a lot of time. The best way to ensure that you will be seen quickly and on your time is to find a place in your area that offers flu shots AND takes appointments. You can go to vaccinefinder.org and enter your address or zip code or you can book an appointment with Solv online and can typically get an appointment in as little as 15 minutes–you can book for yourself and for your whole family all in the app.
Getting a flu shot may not be anyone’s idea of fun but one thing is certain: making an appointment to get the vaccine at the beginning of flu season can save you a lot of time, money, and sniffles down the road. Especially when COVID and the flu can have similar symptoms, it’ll be extremely important and helpful if you do end up having respiratory issues or feeling sick that you can let your provider know that you’ve been vaccinated and help rule out potential illnesses and get the right care. Remember, the flu shot is the best way to prevent illness.