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How Is Flu Season Different During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

COVID-19 has put into question every aspect of our daily routine and put “stay healthy” at the top of everyone’s to-do list. Our lives are different, in ways the world never imagined. So, with health set as a priority, how has flu season changed? We spoke with two Banner Health experts to discuss how flu season is different, and how it is the same, as we continue to battle the pandemic.

“This has been an important 18 months for education,” remarked Brandie Beuthin, RN, a regional director of infection prevention at Banner Health in Arizona. “As we learn to live with COVID-19 in our day to day lives, we have seen how vaccination, masking and social distancing can keep rates of new infections low. In areas where vaccination uptake is low and masking/social distancing are not widespread practice, we’ve seen new rates of infections skyrocket (an enormous stress on our health care system and burned out health care workers). Utilizing these same behaviors to limit influenza infection is more important than ever to decrease the risk of illness and death in the geriatric and pediatric populations, prevent additional stress on the health care system and our health care workers.”

Protect Yourself from Infection

Precautions for the flu have not changed, and the best ways to protect yourself from infection are the same as they’ve been in prior years. Beuthin recommended a few necessary steps to lower your risk:

  • Get vaccinated by the end of October, at the latest
  • Wear a mask
  • Wash or sanitize your hands often
  • Maintain social distancing guidelines
  • Stay home if you are sick
  • Get proper sleep, diet and exercise

“If these flu prevention recommendations look familiar, there’s a good reason,” said Beuthin. “The flu spreads in the same way that COVID-19 can, primarily by tiny droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk.” Social distancing and other necessary mitigation tactics have disrupted nearly every aspect of our lives since the beginning of the pandemic, but a silver lining is that the same practices can minimize spread for influenza as well.

Flu Vaccination

The influenza vaccine is a proven and necessary asset. It is among our strongest tools in our annual fight against the flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend an influenza vaccination annually for every individual 6 months and older.

“Although COVID protocols have shown us how to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses, including social distancing, this does not mean you should skip the flu vaccine this year, even if you work from home or rarely leave the house,” said Beuthin. “In fact, the CDC has updated all flu vaccines to protect against four different flu viruses and can be given at the same time as a COVID-19 vaccine.” 

Devin Minior, MD, is a medical director at Banner Urgent Care. He provided some insight and debunked common myths regarding the flu vaccine. “Staying safe from the flu is more important than ever. Help keep you and your community safe by getting the flu shot in September or October, before flu season starts in November.”

Flu Vaccines are Safe. Even During COVID-19.

“There has been no study connecting the flu shot or other vaccines with an increased risk of COVID-19,” stated Dr. Minior. He went on to correct another misconception. “The flu vaccination does not temporarily increase your chance of contracting the influenza virus. The flu shot uses only pieces of the influenza virus, not the whole virus itself to help the immune system recognize and block it when it tries to enter your body. The nasal spray has a live virus, but it has been changed so it can’t cause the influenza disease. After getting the shot, mild symptoms such as soreness, redness, or swelling at the injection site can occur. A headache or low-grade fever may occur as well.”

Influenza vs. COVID-19

Both cause respiratory illnesses, and because many of the symptoms are similar, it may be hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone, and testing may be needed to help confirm your diagnosis. Common symptoms shared by COVID-19 and influenza include:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Headache
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults

Symptoms of COVID-19 that are different from flu may include change in or loss of taste or smell.

Those most at risk for severe influenza infection are children, pregnant women, elderly, those with underlying chronic medical conditions and those who are immunosuppressed. For the alpha variant of COVID-19, those older in age and/or with underlying conditions were at a significantly increased risk of severe infection. However, the age group primarily affected by the Delta variant (now the most common variant in the United States) is individuals 20-59, as well as increasing cases in children under 12 that cannot currently be vaccinated. One of the most significant reasons for this shift in the age affected is the high rate of vaccination in the older age group and in those with underlying conditions.

If you have been on the fence about getting the COVID-19 vaccine because of the emergency use authorization, the Pfizer vaccine has now been fully approved by the FDA. It is now more important than ever for everyone who is able to get vaccinated for both the flu and COVID-19 to do so as soon as possible. 

If You Are Sick

If you get sick with flu symptoms, in most cases, you should stay home and avoid contact with other people except to get medical care. For certain people at high risk of serious flu-related complications (including young children, people 65 and older, pregnant women and people with certain medical conditions), it is best to visit your doctor early in the illness. Dr. Minior added, “Early treatment with antiviral medications may benefit high risk people if started within two days after the onset of illness.”

Like last year, it’s more important than ever to get your flu shot early. Schedule your flu vaccination today with a Banner Urgent Care or Banner Health Clinic. If you are feeling sick, get help quickly with options for virtual and in-person visits at bannerhealth.com.

It is also important for everyone 12 years of age and older to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as they can.  For a COVID-19 vaccine location near you, visit vaccines.gov.

Pulmonology and Asthma Cold and Flu Urgent Care COVID-19

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