Should I Get a Flu Shot During COVID-19?

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It’s important to do what you can to prevent illness during this pandemic — that includes getting the flu shot. Dr. Stephen Rinderknecht, chair of the UnityPoint Clinic immunization committee, answers eight frequently asked questions, like, “should I get a flu shot?” explaining why getting the flu shot is even more important now, than in years past.

Why Should I Get a Flu Shot?

We recommend the flu shot every year. With the unpredictability of COVID-19 circulating at the same time as the flu, Dr. Rinderknecht says it’s best to decrease the possible impacts on our respiratory system, including preventing the flu. The flu vaccine not only reduces your risk of illness but can prevent hospitalizations and deaths.

Getting a flu shot also helps conserve health care resources during this pandemic. For example, if you aren’t in the hospital fighting the flu, there are more resources, like beds, for those who are hospitalized with other illnesses.

Will the Flu Shot Protect Me From COVID-19?

The flu vaccine will not help you avoid infection with COVID-19, because they’re different viruses — one we know a lot about (the flu), and one that’s still relatively new (the virus that causes COVID-19).

“This year’s flu vaccine is updated to better protect against flu strains we expect to circulate this flu season. It will guard you against two different influenza A strains and two different influenza B strains. The nasal spray form of the flu vaccine will also be available in some clinics that choose to use it,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.

What are Flu Shot Side Effects?

Flu shot side effects include soreness, redness and swelling at the location of the shot. Some people may also experience mild headache, fever, nausea, muscle aches and fatigue, but those occur in less than 1% of those who get vaccinated. Dr. Rinderknecht says, overall, flu shot symptoms are generally mild and last for just a day or two. 

Any symptoms you experience are basic side effects of the flu vaccine and not an actual illness. You cannot get sick from the flu vaccine.

When is the Best Time to Get a Flu Shot?

“The flu vaccine takes several months to manufacture, but usually becomes available sometime in late summer. September and October are the best months to get vaccinated. However, if you don’t make that deadline, you can still be vaccinated later in the season,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.

How Effective is the Flu Shot This Year?

“How well the flu vaccine works each season is determined by several factors, including a person’s age, underlying disease and circulating strains in the community. Efficacy can vary from about 25 to 75 percent, but 60 percent is about typical. Even when the flu shot doesn’t totally prevent the flu, you usually get a milder illness if you contract the flu after having the flu shot,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.

If you’ve had the flu before, you aren't immune to it. That’s why it’s best to get the flu shot every year.

How Does the Flu Shot Compare to the COVID-19 Vaccine?

“There are basically two general categories of flu vaccines in the United States: Inactivated Influenza Vaccines (IIV) and Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine (LAIV). The IIV vaccines are produced by growing the flu virus in a variety of ways, including in eggs. Once grown, the virus is taken out and inactivated so it can’t cause the flu in the body. The LAIV comes in the form of a nasal spray. It’s unique in that it uses a weakened virus that doesn’t cause disease. When sprayed into the nose, it reproduces in the upper airway and generates an immune response,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.

The technology involved in the manufacturing of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines comes with several advantages. 

“The components are readily available. It’s faster and less expensive. In addition, these vaccines have proven themselves with two very safe and very effective COVID-19 vaccines. For these reasons, I believe we’ll see the mRNA technology used for many other vaccines in the future,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.

Who Should Get the Flu Shot?

Dr. Rinderknecht says generally anyone, six months and older, should get the immunization. It is especially important for vulnerable populations, like older adults and those with pre-existing medical conditions like cancer or diabetes, to get the vaccine in hopes of helping protect their bodies against the burden of respiratory illness. What about pregnant individuals? It is both safe and recommended for pregnant women to get a flu shot to help prevent the flu and complications. 

“In the summer of 2022, the CDC changed its recommendations for those who are 65 years and older to a higher dose, or adjuvanted, flu vaccine. Due to changes in our aging immune system, this population has a less robust response to the standard flu vaccine. These higher dose vaccines will give them more protection against serious illness,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.

What are Reasons Not to Get a Flu Shot?

There aren’t many reasons not to get a flu shot, but there are a few.

  • Children younger than 6 months of age are too young for the vaccine.
  • People with severe, life-threatening allergies to an ingredient in the vaccine shouldn’t get it.
  • Those who’ve previously had a severe allergic reaction to the flu vaccine shouldn’t get it again.

“A severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) would start just a few minutes after a vaccine. It would include symptoms such as trouble breathing, pale or blue skin, itching, hives, lightheadedness, confusion, losing consciousness, anxiety or vomiting,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.

Anyone with an egg allergy can get a flu vaccine, but it’s best to get the vaccine in a medical setting, like a clinic. As always, if you have any concerns about the flu vaccine talk to your doctor for guidance.

Should I Get the Flu Vaccine if I’m Sick?

Research shows very mild illness shouldn’t impact the flu vaccine. However, you should not get a flu shot if you’re COVID-19 positive. It wouldn’t hurt you to get the vaccine if you have a mild case of COVID-19, but it’s best to stay home, so you don’t risk spreading the virus to other, especially healthcare workers.

COVID-19 symptoms include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of taste/smell
  • Headache
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Overall, if you’re not feeling well the day of your flu vaccine, talk to your healthcare team.

How Do I Get My Flu Shot with UnityPoint Health?

If you have any health-related questions regarding the flu vaccine, it’s always best to start by talking with your primary care provider. Your clinic will be able to answer questions about how and when flu shots are being administered.