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As autumn gets underway, flu season is ramping up, too. Many people are rolling up their sleeves for a flu shot, hoping to protect themselves against seasonal influenza. And this year, many are also getting vaccinated, or boosted, against COVID-19.
And while many are holding out hope for effective COVID treatments, like Merck’s oral antiviral COVID-19 drug molnupiravir or Pfizer’s Paxlovid, your best bet at this point is to take advantage of the opportunities you already have. Experts recommend getting both a flu shot and a COVID vaccine as soon as you can.
Does the flu shot help with COVID?
The flu vaccine is only intended to guard against influenza. So getting a flu shot won’t protect you from COVID-19.
But protection against influenza is no small matter. About 28,000 people died from the flu during the 2018-2019 flu season and as many as 380,000 had to be hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And while last year’s flu activity was lower because people were staying home and social distancing during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts caution that we’re likely to see a rebound in flu activity with many more flu cases this year.
“Masking and social distancing kept the flu at bay last season. However, as people return to in-person activities and children return to school, we expect the flu to return,” says Shoshana Fishbein, MPH, the communications director for the nonprofit Families Fighting Flu. “In fact, flu activity is already higher this season than it was last year. Because there was virtually no person-to-person flu infection last year, a portion of the population that either has not been vaccinated or experienced an exposure will likely have little immunity to the virus, which could lead to increased flu illnesses.”
And while the flu shot won’t protect you against COVID-19, it can reduce your chances of contracting the flu. That’s no small matter, either. “It’s possible to get sick with both viruses at the same time,” notes Debra A. Maitre, DNP, APRN-CNS, a medical adviser for Families Fighting Flu. “Vaccinating against the flu can help protect a vulnerable immune system from also catching COVID-19 at the same time.”
The flu shot and COVID vaccines: Can I get both?
You can get both vaccines, and you should get both—unless your healthcare provider advises you otherwise.
“Prevention is still the best treatment,” says David Cutler, MD, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “And vaccines against both COVID and flu are excellent ways to prevent infection.”
And yes, you do need both, experts say. “It’s important for people to know that the flu is caused by a different virus than COVID and therefore you need separate vaccinations,” explains Karen Edwards, PhD, MS, professor and chair of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, Irvine.
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. 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 serious complications from the flu. For example, if you have allergies or asthma, you’re at greater risk for bad outcomes from the flu, so you may want to prioritize getting a flu shot sooner rather than later.
There are two kinds of flu vaccine: the shot and the nasal mist. Which type of flu vaccine should you choose? 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 50 years and older, and children under 2.
Meanwhile, you currently have three options in the U.S. when it comes to a COVID-19 vaccine: the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine, the Moderna mRNA vaccine, and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen, which is a viral vector vaccine. According to the CDC, the vaccines are even safe for people with many underlying medical conditions—and in fact, since those people tend to be at increased risk for severe illness when it comes to COVID-19, the CDC recommends that they get vaccinated.
Additionally, people at a higher risk, which includes people who are immunocompromised, adults age 65 and older, and people who live or work in high-risk settings, are also eligible for COVID booster shots (6 months or more after they have been fully vaccinated with two doses of an mRNA vaccine or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine).
You don’t have to worry about spacing out the flu and COVID vaccines, either. You can get a COVID-19 booster and a flu shot at the same time, if it’s convenient for you.
Does Tamiflu help with 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. Tamiflu, which inhibits the ability of the virus to make copies of it itself, has approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of both influenza A and B.
While these meds can help you recover from the flu, currently there’s no research to indicate that taking Tamiflu will also work against COVID-19 infections.
What can I take to reduce symptoms of COVID-19?
If you develop a fever and other flu-like symptoms, don’t ignore them.
“Stay home and if your symptoms worsen, you should consult with your healthcare provider,” Dr. Edwards says.
When you call your doctor, ask for guidance. You might just have the flu, but you could be infected with COVID-19. The two illnesses have many of the same symptoms, such as fever, fatigue, a cough, sore throat, body aches, and headache. Your doctor can run tests to determine if you have the flu or COVID-19.
If your flu test comes back positive, and you’re within the 48-hour window, you may be able to start taking Tamiflu. You may also be able to take an over-the-counter cold-and-flu med to help temporarily relieve some of your symptoms. 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.
Soon, you might also have access to new COVID-19 treatments.
For example, the new COVID pill called molnupiravir is still considered an investigational new drug, and is not yet approved by the FDA. But pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck recently released a statement that this antiviral medication significantly reduced the rates of death and hospitalization in adults with mild to moderate COVID in an interim analysis during a Phase 3 clinical trial. In fact, regulators in the U.K. approved the use of molnupiravir in early November, and approval might not be far behind in the U.S. Merck submitted an application to the FDA in mid-October for an emergency use authorization and has announced an agreement to provide 1.7 million doses to the U.S. government upon approval of the EUA.
Pfizer also announced promising results from its own experimental antiviral COVID drug, Paxlovid, and the company submitted an application for an EUA on Nov. 16.
One more thing: Watch out for products that promise more than they might deliver. “Many treatments for colds, flu, and COVID have been promoted without adequate investigation, authorization, approval or recommendation,” Dr. Cutler cautions. “These include many vitamins, supplements, and prescription drugs used for other purposes.” Consult a trusted medical authority before you open your wallet.
How to prevent getting sick this flu season
The influenza vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccines aren’t your only tools to ward off illness.
“We saw last season that masks and social distancing kept the flu at bay, and those practices can still be used when entering large public spaces like schools and grocery stores,” says Maitre.
In fact, avoiding public spaces that are crowded and staying away from people who are already sick may also help you reduce your risk of getting ill with either the flu or COVID-19.
Another key tool: Handwashing will also help prevent transmission of the flu, COVID, and other respiratory illnesses. And when you don’t have access to soap and water, you can use a hand sanitizer that’s at least 60% ethanol alcohol.