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How Is Flu Season Different During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

2020 has put into question every aspect of our daily routine and put “stay healthy” at the top of everyone’s to-do list. Our lives are different, in ways the world never imagined. So, with health set as a priority, how has flu season changed? We spoke with two Banner Health experts to discuss how flu season is different, and how it is the same, in 2020.

“This has been an important year for education,” remarked Brandie Beuthin, RN, an infection prevention director at Banner - University Medical Center Tucson. “We’ve seen the world take incredible strides to control the spread of COVID-19 and the importance of owning our own actions, such as masking and social distancing to keep rates low. Utilizing these same behaviors to limit influenza infection is more important than ever to decrease the stress on the healthcare system.”

Protect Yourself from Infection

The flu is still the flu. Even in 2020, the best ways to protect yourself from infection are the same as they’ve been in prior years. Beuthin recommended a few necessary steps to lower your risk.

  • Get vaccinated early

  • Wear a mask

  • Wash your hands often

  • Maintain social distancing guidelines

  • Stay home if you are sick

  • Get proper sleep, diet and exercise

“If these flu prevention recommendations look familiar, there’s a good reason,” said Beuthin. “The flu spreads in the same way that COVID-19 does, mainly by tiny droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk.” Social distancing and other necessary mitigation tactics have disrupted the way we operate in 2020, but a silver lining is that the same practices can minimize spread for influenza as well.

Flu Vaccination

The medical community continues to diligently push toward a vaccine for COVID-19. These vaccines take time to safely develop. The influenza vaccine is a proven and necessary asset. It is among our strongest tools in our annual fight against the flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend an influenza vaccination annually for every individual 6 months and older.

“Although we are social distanced, this does not deemphasize the importance of a flu vaccine,” said Beuthin. “Even if you are working from home and rarely leave the house, it is still recommended that you get vaccinated.” COVID-19 and influenza both weaken your lungs. Exposure to one can increase the risk and severity of the other.

Devin Minior, MD, is a medical director at Banner Urgent Care. He provided some insight and debunked common myths regarding the flu vaccine. “This year, staying safe from the flu is more important than ever. Help keep you and your community safe by getting the flu shot in September or October, before flu season starts in November.”

Flu Vaccines are Safe. Even During COVID-19.

“There has been no study connecting the flu shot or other vaccines with an increased risk of COVID-19,” stated Dr. Minior. He went on to correct another misconception. “The flu vaccination does not temporarily increase your chance of contracting the influenza virus. The flu shot uses only pieces of the influenza virus, not the whole virus itself to help the immune system recognize and block it when it tries to enter your body. The nasal spray has a live virus, but it has been changed so it can’t cause the influenza disease. After getting the shot, mild symptoms such as soreness, redness, or swelling at the injection site can occur. A headache or low-grade fever may occur as well.”

Influenza vs. COVID-19

Both cause respiratory illnesses, and because many of the symptoms are similar, it may be hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone, and testing may be needed to help confirm your diagnosis. Common symptoms shared by COVID-19 and influenza include:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills

  • Cough

  • Fatigue

  • Sore throat

  • Muscle pain or body aches

  • Headache

  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults

Symptoms of COVID-19 that are different from flu may include change in or loss of taste or smell.

Those most at risk for severe influenza infection are children, pregnant women, elderly, those with underlying chronic medical conditions and those who are immunosuppressed. For COVID-19, our current understanding is that older age and underlying conditions increase the risk for severe infection.

If You Are Sick

If you get sick with flu symptoms, in most cases, you should stay home and avoid contact with other people except to get medical care. For certain people at high risk of serious flu-related complications (including young children, people 65 and older, pregnant women and people with certain medical conditions), it is best to visit your doctor early in the illness. Dr. Minior added, “Early treatment with antiviral medications may benefit high risk people if started within two days after the onset of illness.”

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