As autumn approaches, many people make it a point to get a flu shot to protect themselves against seasonal influenza. Many people have already gotten theirs.
This year, that’s an especially good idea, says Kevin McGrath, MD, a clinical spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology and an allergist in private practice in Connecticut. The 2020 flu season (which typically begins in October in North America), will ramp up in the middle of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. That means two viruses that have the potential to make you very sick will be circulating at the same time. Some scientists are dubbing this the “twindemic.”
You can have a mild case of influenza. You can get a mild case of COVID-19. Or, you can catch both at the same time, which would lead to more severe symptoms. There’s not currently a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. But you can protect yourself against the flu and avoid weakening your immune system by getting a flu vaccine.
Why do you need a flu shot?
A seasonal flu vaccine can help you either avoid getting the flu or reduce the severity of the illness if you do get the flu. There are two types of vaccine: a shot and a nasal mist.
The seasonal flu vaccine is not 100% effective, but experts generally recommend that everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated, especially if they’re at high risk for complications from the flu. For example, Dr. McGrath says, people with allergies and asthma are at greater risk for bad outcomes from the flu, so they should definitely get a flu shot.
Almost everyone can get the flu shot, with certain rare exceptions, such as people with allergies to the vaccine or any of its components. However, there are additional exceptions when it comes to the nasal spray vaccine, including pregnant women, immunosuppressed people, people over 50 and children under 2.
Does the flu shot help against coronavirus?
The flu vaccine is only intended to guard against influenza. It won’t protect you from this new coronavirus. Because this coronavirus is a novel virus—that is, a new virus—your body doesn’t have residual immunity against it. You’re vulnerable to it. There’s not yet a vaccine available for this coronavirus, although researchers are testing many potential vaccines in clinical trials.
But while the flu shot won’t protect you against COVID-19, it can reduce the chances of facing the unwelcome prospect of getting both COVID-19 and the flu, says Susan Besser, MD, a primary care physician specializing in Family Medicine with Mercy Personal Physicians at Overlea in Baltimore.
“Getting both viruses might cause more intense symptoms and increase the likelihood of worse disease,” Dr. Besser explains.
That’s especially important because experts believe that COVID-19 is much deadlier than the seasonal flu. However, according to the World Health Organization, it will take some time to determine the true death rate of COVID-19.
How about Tamiflu for coronavirus?
Many doctors will suggest that you take a prescription antiviral drug like Tamiflu (oseltamivir) to recover more quickly from the flu. When taken within 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms, Tamiflu can be effective in reducing your illness by a day or so. Another antiviral option is Xofluza (baloxavir marboxil). It’s approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use within 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms, and to prevent the flu after exposure to the virus.
“Tamiflu inhibits the enzyme neuraminidase, which blocks the ability of the influenza virus to make copies of itself,” explains Leann Poston, MD, a contributor to Ikon Health. “It is FDA approved for the treatment of both influenza A and influenza B.”
Right now, experts don’t know if Tamiflu will also work against COVID-19 infections. “There are currently clinical trials underway to see if Tamiflu has any effect on COVID,” Dr. Poston says. “Tamiflu will only work on COVID if it has any of the same neuraminidase enzyme activity or there is an unknown pathway on which it may act.”
While there’s not a definitive answer yet, you probably don’t want to count on it. Dr. Poston notes that “it does not look promising though, based on the results of clinical trials in China.”
What should you do if you develop flu-like symptoms?
If you develop a fever and other flu-like symptoms, don’t ignore them. Call your doctor right away and ask for guidance. You might just have the flu, but you could be infected with COVID-19.
“This is especially important because it’s difficult for patients to tell a COVID infection from the flu,” Dr. McGrath says. “And you can get both infections [at the same time], unfortunately.”
Your doctor can run a flu test to determine whether or not you have the flu. If it comes back positive, and you’re within the 48-hour window, you may be able to start taking Tamiflu.
However, if your flu test comes back negative, your doctor might recommend a COVID-19 test. If your COVID test turns out positive, your doctor can go over the instructions for quarantining yourself while you’re contagious and how to care for yourself while you recover. Some people may qualify to take the antiviral medication remdesivir, which is still considered an investigational drug in the U.S. but was recently submitted to the FDA for approval for the treatment of COVID-19.
Beyond the flu shot
The flu shot isn’t your only tool to ward off illness.
“Handwashing, masks, and social distancing will help prevent transmission of the flu just as it does for COVID,” Dr. Besser says. “Both are respiratory viruses and spread through airborne droplets.”
Staying away from people who are sick and avoiding public spaces that are crowded with other people may also help you reduce your risk of getting ill with either the flu or COVID-19.