According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flu and COVID-19 are caused by completely different viruses, but there are several similarities between the two. They share common symptoms, affect the respiratory system, are contagious, and can cause mild to severe illness.
Medical experts around the globe are concerned about the likelihood of an overwhelming number of cases of both illnesses — what some are calling a “twindemic.” Not only are many people at high risk for severe illness caused by flu and COVID-19, but some hospitals might not have the resources to care for the increased number of severely ill patients.
"We’re looking at a pretty tough winter with delta spreading right now and the flu season around the corner," says Dr. Jyotu Sandhu, a family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “Contracting both viruses at the same time could be serious. They’re both respiratory infections, they both can cause severe illness — even death — and when contracted together, they can have dangerous outcomes."
Vaccines can help prevent a ‘twindemic’
The good news is that there are safe and effective vaccinations for both the flu and COVID-19 that can prevent severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths. This offers a solution for lightening the load of illness in each region if everyone who can get vaccinated rolls up their sleeves for the shots.
In fact, the CDC reports that the flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of having to go to the doctor with the flu by 40% to 60%. Flu vaccination among adults was also associated with a 26% lower risk of intensive care unit admission and a 31% lower risk of death from flu compared to people who were unvaccinated.
What’s more, the COVID-19 vaccines are extremely effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization or worse. While breakthrough infections after vaccination are possible, data show that in San Diego County, 98.8% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 since Jan. 1, 2021, were unvaccinated.
The CDC says: Get the shots
But what if you’ve already had COVID-19? Do you still need to get a COVID-19 vaccine or flu shot? If so, is it safe to get either vaccine while sick with or shortly after recovering from COVID-19?
Because different viruses cause the flu and COVID-19, having recovered from COVID-19 does not make you immune to the flu. But the annual influenza vaccine, also known as the flu shot, offers optimal protection against the flu viruses thought to be the most common during this year’s flu season.
Having COVID-19 may provide you with some immunity to having that disease again in the future, but it is unknown how long your natural immunity will last. And immunity gained through infection varies person to person.
The CDC recommends receiving both vaccines, even after having COVID-19, with the following in mind:
- If you currently have COVID-19, both your flu and COVID-19 vaccination should be postponed for no less than 10 days from your positive test result; at least 10 days after your symptoms first began; and only if you have no fever without the use of fever-reducing medicines for 24 hours.
- Even if you have no or very mild symptoms, you should postpone getting your vaccinations to avoid exposing others — including your health care provider and other patients — to the virus that causes COVID-19.
- If you had a known exposure to a person with COVID-19, you should also wait to receive your vaccinations until your quarantine period has ended.
After that, the CDC reports that it is safe to receive both your flu and COVID-19 vaccines, and you can even receive them at the same time. It’s also important to note that the flu vaccine cannot give you the flu and the COVID-19 vaccines cannot give you COVID-19. Additionally, neither the flu vaccine nor a COVID-19 vaccine makes you more vulnerable to the other illness.
“Getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed,” says Dr. Sandhu. "Hospitals across the country are already showing signs that they can’t handle the sheer numbers of seriously ill patients, so we’re advising people to stay safe and prevent both flu and COVID-19 infection through vaccination before they become a greater problem.”