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Experts: Get COVID-19 and Flu Boosters

A clinician vaccinating a patient's upper arm

September 29, 2022

Health experts anticipate a worse-than-usual flu season in 2022 and 2023. They recommend vaccinating against the flu in addition to getting an updated COVID-19 booster or first-time vaccination.  

COVID-19 and influenza are caused by different viruses and require different vaccines; it is safe to receive a COVID-19 vaccine or booster dose on the same day as a flu shot, according to the CDC. Vaccinating against each virus increases a person’s chances of experiencing less severe illness.

Internal medicine physician and clinical associate professor for Drexel University College of Medicine Janet Fitzpatrick, MD, said that having either COVID-19 or influenza is tough on the body. Because of this, patients especially want to avoid contracting both illnesses at once.

“They are both infectious diseases and if you catch either one by itself, generally speaking you’ll feel really bad as your immune system tries to fight the illness,” Fitzpatrick said. “If you catch both at the same time, they’re really just going to make you feel even worse. Your immune system is going to have a harder time because it’s not fighting just one infection, it’s trying to fight two.”

This year’s flu vaccine, and when to get it

The CDC recommends vaccinating against the flu by the end of October each year, before cases rise in mid-November. But Fitzpatrick said even patients who miss that deadline should still get a flu shot, as flu cases can be seen through March each year.

Flu vaccines provide protection against the four types – or strains – of flu virus that experts believe will be most common in a particular flu season. This year, the CDC recommends that adults aged 65 and older receive a stronger dose than the standard flu vaccine; talk to your primary care provider if you have any questions about your individual vaccination needs.

About the updated COVID-19 booster

An updated COVID-19 booster is now available, and it is bivalent, meaning that it protects against both the original strain of COVID that began spreading in 2020 and some newer strains. Previous COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters were made only to protect against the original strain of the virus.

“Even if COVID changes further, the booster is going to provide some benefit, and more benefit than the original vaccine would by itself,” said Jennifer Hamilton, MD, PhD, a professor in the Department of Family, Community, and Preventive Medicine at Drexel University College of Medicine.

You can get the updated booster as long as you have received both of your primary COVID-19 vaccine doses; the booster will be effective whether or not you have had other COVID boosters, Dr. Hamilton said.

The CDC says that getting a vaccination even if you have already had COVID-19 helps boost your immunity. If you recently had COVID-19, waiting for a month or two after you are fully recovered to get a primary or booster vaccination can make the vaccine more effective, according to experts.

While it is hard to predict when COVID-19 spikes will happen, Hamilton recommends getting a booster as soon as possible, especially if you have a large event coming up, like a wedding, vacation or family gathering. She said to keep in mind that it can take two weeks for a vaccine to reach full effectiveness. She also recommended people get vaccinated against flu this year even if you typically get your flu shot every other year.

Why vaccinate?

Experts say it is possible this will be an especially bad flu year due to changes in individuals’ behavior, according to Hamilton. Many people have stopped wearing a mask or wear one less often than they did at the beginning of the pandemic, and people are socializing in person more now than before.

“The flu transmission last year was much lower than usual because people were taking these other measures beyond vaccines to limit their exposure to any respiratory infection,” Hamilton said. “This year, there’s two years of vulnerability to flu that eventually the virus is going to notice and try to catch up on.”

She said she especially recommends that children, who are eligible for the flu vaccine at 6 months, be vaccinated, because they may have gone two years without exposure to the virus. Parents and others who spend time with kids should get vaccinated against the flu not just for their own sake, but also to help lower the risk they will pass it on to a child.

The most serious cases of either COVID-19 or influenza can lead to hospitalization or death, but Fitzpatrick said that preventing the spread of these illnesses is crucial even for people who would more likely be able to recover at home.

“In a typical year, anywhere between 20,000 and 70,000 people in the United States die of influenza,” Fitzpatrick said. “The elderly, children and immunocompromised people are at greater risk of death, but everyone is at risk of contracting an illness that can be debilitating even if it doesn’t kill you.”

Fitzpatrick said people who are being diligent about mask-wearing and social distancing still need a flu vaccine. She noted that she understands some patients’ vaccine hesitancy, but she is available to answer their questions to help them understand the safety and importance of vaccines.

“Influenza is a preventable illness, and when people get the flu, they can feel very sick and pretty miserable for 10 to 14 days,” Fitzpatrick said. “We can help keep people from feeling so sick, and from spreading their illness to others – that’s really what vaccines are all about: preventing illness when we can.”

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