The 2020 flu season is going to be a little different this year. Previously, sniffles and sneezes were automatically thought of as a sign of the common cold or influenza. But now, they can also be symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
Even as COVID-19 continues to spread around the country, it’s crucial to be wary of the flu. From October 2019 through early April 2020, up to 62,000 people died due to flu complications, while up to 740,000 people were hospitalized, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That was slightly worse than the 2018-2019 season—approximately 647,000 people were hospitalized and 61,200 people died due to flu complications.
Typically, flu season ramps up in the fall and lasts until the end of April, sometimes into May. That’s why it’s so important to get vaccinated each year: Circulating flu viruses constantly change from year to year, and getting the flu shot is your best first-line defense against getting sick.
In fact, the flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of going to the doctor with the flu by 40 to 60%. A 2018 study also found that, from 2012 to 2015, flu vaccines among adults reduced flu-related hospitalizations to the intensive care unit by 82%.
That’s why it’s especially crucial to get the flu shot as COVID-19 continues to circulate, says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Flu cases “compete with the same resources,” like ICU beds and medical personnel, he explains. While the flu shot isn’t perfect at preventing the flu, the CDC says it can lower your risk of developing a serious case of the virus that requires hospitalization. “The more room we have in our hospitals to take care of COVID-19 patients, the better,” Dr. Adalja says.
So, when is the best time to get the flu shot in 2020?
The best time to get the flu shot (or nasal spray, depending on what your doctor recommends) is as soon as the vaccine is available, which is often by the end of August in many parts of the country, says Lisa Maragakis, M.D., M.P.H., senior director of infection prevention at Johns Hopkins Health System.
The CDC is currently recommending that everyone become vaccinated in September or October. “That’s really so you get the shot before the flu starts circulating widely and gives your body time to react to the vaccine and build up immunity,” says Dr. Maragakis. You can get vaccinated through January or even later, as long as the flu virus is still circulating, but the earlier the better.
Plus, there’s no way to predict what this year’s strain will bring. “We never really know what to expect from any given flu season except that we know we’ll have one,” says Dr. Maragakis. Their best estimates come from looking at the southern hemisphere and what happened during their flu season. Check out all of the strains being targeted by this year’s vaccine here.
Can you still get the flu after getting the vaccine?
Despite common misconceptions, the flu shot will not give you the flu. It’s not a live virus vaccine and can’t make you sick, says Dr. Maragarkis. “When you get a vaccine, it’s really triggering your immune system to respond so that it learns how to fight off the influenza virus and can protect you,” she explains.
It’s also very possible to get sick from something other than the flu after you get vaccinated. “A fair number of people get the flu vaccine, and it just so happens that they caught something else around the time and they link the two things together in their minds,” says Dr. Maragakis.
Plus, it takes your body roughly two weeks to build up enough antibodies to fend off influenza—and there’s always a chance you could catch the flu before your vaccine really takes effect. That’s why getting the flu shot as soon as you can is so crucial.
Can the flu shot prevent COVID-19?
Unfortunately, no. While COVID-19 has been compared to the flu, especially in the symptoms it can produce, they are not the same. “They’re two different viruses from two different viral families,” Dr. Adalja says.
Who should get the flu shot?
There is only a small list of people who should not get the flu vaccine. Everyone who is able to get the flu shot (generally those 6 months or older) should get vaccinated—not only for your own health, but also for those around you.
It’s especially important for those at high risk of flu complications, including children aged 6 months through four years old, pregnant women, people older than 50, immunosuppressed individuals, and those with chronic diseases, the CDC says. Keep in mind that many people who are high risk for developing a serious case of the flu are also considered high risk for severe complications of COVID-19, Dr. Adalja says.
Where can you get the flu shot?
Here’s a list of places where you can get your flu shot for little to no cost:
- Your primary care doctor
- Walgreens, CVS Pharmacy, or Rite Aid
- Urgent care facilities, with insurance
- Walmart, with most insurance plans
- Local supermarkets