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With the world’s attention focused on COVID-19, it’s easy to forget about another foe headed our way this winter: the flu.
The influenza virus is not as deadly as COVID-19, but it still kills thousands of Americans every year. Fortunately, an effective flu vaccine exists that reduces your likelihood of catching the flu this season.
“The recommendation is everyone six months of age and above get a yearly flu vaccine,” says Marian Michaels, MD, of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
To promote the importance of the flu shot during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has ordered millions of additional doses for children and adults.
Does the Flu Shot Prevent COVID-19?
The influenza virus is very different from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, so a flu shot can’t prevent COVID-19.
But the current pandemic does mean getting a flu shot is more important than ever: It reduces your risk of having to fight two infections at once if you do get COVID-19.
“I think it is really important to be safe and do as much as we can to protect our children, ourselves, and our loved ones,” Dr. Michaels says. “Taking this seriously and getting our flu vaccines, as well as all the other immunizations that are available to protect our children from diseases that too often have killed people in the past, is really the most important thing we can do to help our families be safe.”
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Types of Flu Shots for 2020
All flu vaccines work in the same way: They introduce your body to pieces of the flu virus so that your immune system recognizes it as an intruder. Although those pieces can’t make you sick, your immune system creates proteins called antibodies to fight them.
Those antibodies stick around after responding to the vaccine. If you do encounter the real flu, the antibodies attack the influenza virus before it has to chance to make you sick.
All flu shots offer protection against 3 or 4 different flu strains. These vary from year to year, depending on which strains experts believe will be most common during the upcoming flu season.
There are several different types of flu vaccines for 2020. All but one are quadrivalent, meaning they protect against 4 strains of the virus:
- A standard flu shot
- A high-dose flu shot that offers more protection for people age 65 and older
- A flu shot for people 65 and older with an extra ingredient to strengthen the body’s immune response. (There are 2 of these vaccines available, a trivalent that covers 3 strains and a quadrivalent that covers 4 strains.)
- A flu shot made without eggs
- A genetically modified vaccine that is made without a real flu virus
How Effective Is the Flu Vaccine?
The flu vaccine reduces your chances of catching the flu, but how much it lowers your risk varies each year. That’s because the flu virus itself is constantly changing, and scientists must try to keep pace by updating the vaccine.
Some years, the strains in the flu shot match the strains circulating in the community very well, so the vaccine is especially effective. Other years, the virus changes quickly or other strains pop up, so the vaccine is less effective.
Most years, the flu vaccine is 40% to 60% effective. In other words, it cuts your risk of catching the flu roughly in half.
Even in years when the flu shot doesn’t work as well, it still prevents thousands of hospitalizations and deaths. If you get the flu shot but catch the flu anyway, you’re less likely to develop complications or need hospitalization.
What’s Different About Flu Vaccines in 2020?
The strains in this season’s flu shot are not the same as the ones used last year. Scientists have updated the strains to those that public health experts expect will spread through the community this year. That means it’s important to get a flu shot this year, even if you got it last year.
There are 2 new vaccines for people age 65 and older — one is a high-dose vaccine and the other is a vaccine with an extra ingredient to strengthen your immune response. Both new vaccines are designed to immunize you against 4 strains of influenza.
Side Effects of the Flu Shot
The flu shot cannot give you the flu and does not increase your risk of catching COVID-19. But you might experience side effects from the flu shot or nasal vaccine. Most are mild and last only a few hours or several days:
- Soreness, redness, or swelling where you got the shot
- Muscle aches
- Feeling sick to your stomach
Tell your doctor if you feel dizzy for more than an hour after getting the vaccine. If you have trouble breathing or notice signs of an allergic reaction, contact your doctor immediately. However, serious reactions are rare.
Why Do I Need a Flu Shot If I’m Wearing a Mask?
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many people taking preventive measures to limit the spread of the virus SARS-CoV-2. That includes social distancing, hand hygiene, and wearing a facemask in public places.
Those preventive measures also may help to limit the spread of the flu. Like COVID-19, people can spread the flu before showing symptoms.
However, the No. 1 way to prevent the spread of influenza is through the flu vaccine, as it limits the number of infections in the first place.
Getting a vaccine can help protect people and communities from vaccine-preventable diseases like the flu, according to the CDC. It also can prevent unnecessary illnesses and hospital visits, lessening the burden on health care providers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
So while a facemask may help, a flu shot is crucial.
2019-2020 U.S. Flu Season: Preliminary Burden Estimates, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link
Adjuvanted Flu Vaccine, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link
Frequently Asked Influenza (Flu) Questions: 2020-2021 Season, How Well Do the Flu Vaccines Work? National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link
Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link
Laboratory-Confirmed Influenza Hospitalizations, FluView Interactive, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link
Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Supply for the U.S. 2020-2021 Influenza Season, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link
Summary: 'Prevention and Control of Seasonal Influenza with Vaccines: Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP)—United States, 2020-21', National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link
Vaccine Effectiveness: How Well Do the Flu Vaccines Work? National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link
Who Should and Who Should NOT get a Flu Vaccine, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link
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