Do I Really Need to Get Vaccinated for the Flu in 2020?
Making the Case For Why the Flu Vaccine is More Important Than Ever This Year
Touro College of Pharmacy professor, Roopali Sharma, PharmD, AAHIVP, BCPS (AQ-ID) and her Downstate PGY-2 Resident, Tyler Maxwell, PharmD, discuss the flu, and this year’s flu season.
The CDC estimates that each year approximately 8% of the U.S. population gets sick from the flu each year, so it’s important to know how to protect yourself from the flu and how to reduce the risk of spreading the flu to others.
The year 2020 is unique though, and as we head into the winter season, many wonder how the COVID pandemic will affect the upcoming flu season. First, some background on the flu.
What is the flu?
The flu is a respiratory disease caused by the influenza virus that may cause fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, and general feelings of fatigue. It is mainly spread from person to person through airborne droplets made when people cough, sneeze or talk, however, a person may also get the flu by coming into contact with contaminated sources such as touching a surface or objects that has the flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes. Once a person has been infected, it may take up to 4 days for the symptoms to appear, but the virus can be transmitted approximately 24 hours before symptoms appear – infected individuals can infect other people 1 day before symptoms onset and for 5-7 days after becoming sick. This is important to know because individuals could feel perfect before the symptoms of flu appear but may be highly contagious.
People usually recover from the flu within about 7 days, but some symptoms, like a cough, may persist for up to 4 weeks. Most people recover from the flu with no complications, but in some individuals, more severe disease can develop, such as secondary pneumonia caused by other viruses, bacteria, or both.
If anyone experiences symptoms such as a fever >104°F, seizures, severe dehydration, confusion, bluish lips, or shortness of breath while having the flu they should obtain medical care right away.
Who is at risk for getting the flu?
Anybody can contract the flu if they are exposed to the virus, but certain populations are more likely to get sick with the flu. Adults over 65 years of age, children younger than 2 years of age, people with asthma, COPD, obesity, heart disease, or a weakened immune systems are at a higher risk of serious complications and should take measures like getting the flu vaccine to prevent getting sick.
What can you do to prevent catching the flu?
According to the CDC, the single best way to prevent seasonal flu is to get a flu vaccine each year. A new vaccine is needed each year because the influenza virus is very good at adapting and mutating so those previous flu vaccines may not completely protect against them. Each year, surveys of the most common flu viruses are taken to update the flu vaccine for the following year.
There are three main types of flu vaccines available: an inactivated vaccine, a recombinant vaccine, and a live attenuated vaccine. Inactivated vaccines use a version of the influenza virus that has been inactivated and cannot cause disease. Most types of flu vaccines are inactivated and can be given to almost anybody, but they do contain egg products so they are not recommended in those with an egg allergy. Recombinant vaccines use specific pieces of the influenza virus, such as its coating, and not the whole virus. The recombinant flu vaccine is not created with egg and does not use the actual influenza virus, so it can be safely used in those with an egg allergy and does not cause the flu. Finally, live attenuated vaccines use a live virus that has been weakened. These live vaccines produce the greatest amount of protection from disease but should be avoided in certain populations, such as those with weakened immune systems, people without a spleen, adults over 50 years of age, children under 2 years of age, and pregnant women.
Flu vaccines are recommended in every person over the age of 6 months and are recommended to be taken every year by the end of October. For people at higher risks of complications or health care workers, it is especially important to get the flu vaccine to decrease risks of both getting sick and giving the flu to other people. Talk to your healthcare provider to find out more about which flu vaccine is the most appropriate for you!
In addition to getting the flu vaccine, you can reduce your risk of getting the flu by taking simple precautions every day. Avoid other people that are already sick, cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, wash your hands often, and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
So, how will the coronavirus that is causing the COVID pandemic influence the flu season this year?
The “every day” recommendations to reduce your risk of getting sick from the flu likely sound familiar, and that is because they are similar to the precautions suggested for the COVID pandemic. Both COVID-19 and the influenza virus are spread in the same way, so it is possible that this year may see less of the flu, since mask precautions are in place and people are taking many additional measures to stay safe. However, we are simply not sure at this time what kind of an effect the current COVID precautions will have on the incidence of the flu during this winter, so it is still important to get a flu vaccine to protect yourself.
It is also important to prevent the flu because an infection with both the influenza virus and the coronavirus could be detrimental to the respiratory tract and lead to serious complications and have long-term consequences to a person’s health. Having two respiratory infections at the same time may lead to an increase in mortality and will raise questions about the correct way to medically treat these patients. For this reason, it is more important than ever to get the flu vaccine – to prevent the possibility of contracting both infections at the same time.
For more information about how to protect yourself from both the flu and the coronavirus, contact your healthcare provider or speak to your local pharmacist.
- Key Facts About Influenza (Flu). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2019. Accessed from: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/keyfacts.htm
- Orthomyxoviruses (Influenza Viruses). In: Riedel S, Hobden JA, Miller S, Morse SA, Mietzner TA, Detrick B, Mitchell TG, Sakanari JA, Hotez P, Mejia R. Jawetz, Melnick, & Adelberg's Medical Microbiology, 28e. McGraw-Hill.
- Tokars JI, Olsen SJ, Reed C. Season Incidence of Symptomatic Influenza in the United States. Clin Infect Dis. 2018;66(10):1511-1518.
- U.S. Department of health and human services. 2020. Accessed from: https://www.vaccines.gov