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Vital Signs: Why getting your flu shot is even more important this year

Vital Signs: Why getting your flu shot is even more important this year

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More than eight months after the first confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis in the U.S., there’s still a lot we don’t know about the new coronavirus. Researchers are diligently working to determine how it affects the body and how to prevent it from spreading. But a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 is likely going to take more time to finalize.

What we do have readily available, however, is the influenza vaccine.

Flu may have been overshadowed by the coronavirus in recent months, but it remains a serious threat to our country’s health. In fact, flu is responsible for more than 450,000 hospitalizations and more than 34,000 deaths last year alone in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The best way to keep the influenza virus in check: get vaccinated.

Double the risk

Flu season typically begins in late September in Virginia and runs through March. Unfortunately, there is a very limited chance of us getting COVID-19 completely under control before flu season takes hold. That means two respiratory viruses will be circulating in tandem, putting you at risk for getting both at the same time and putting a greater burden on our healthcare system.

COVID-19 and influenza both affect the respiratory system; this includes the nasal passages, bronchial tubes, lungs and other organs involved in taking up oxygen and discharging carbon dioxide. We have little data at this point on how the body might respond to being infected with both viruses simultaneously, but we do know both of these viruses can lead to serious complications, especially among the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. The most notable of these complications is pneumonia, which often requires hospitalization.

Stopping the spread

The good news is we are seeing some promising signs of reduced flu activity in the Southern hemisphere, where the 2020 flu season has mostly come and gone. One possible explanation is that the measures we’re taking to limit the spread of coronavirus — mandatory masking, social distancing and reduced public gatherings — are also helping to reduce the spread of influenza.

This, we can only speculate. What we know for certain is that the risks are just too great during this pandemic for us not to take advantage of the flu-fighting resources we have available. Chief among them is the flu vaccine. If you’re on the fence about getting vaccinated this year, here are some things to keep in mind.

Facts about the flu vaccine

The flu vaccine is safe. The influenza vaccine contains proteins from a viral capsule, not the live virus. The nasal spray does contain live virus, but it is weakened. Thus, neither of these vaccinations can cause illness. Also, according to extensive research, the flu vaccine does not make you more susceptible to getting other illnesses.

The flu vaccine is effective. It’s true that the vaccine may not be a perfect match for the strain or strains of flu circulating during a particular flu season. However, even if the vaccine is 40% effective, that’s millions of people protected from the virus. Thousands fewer people will be seeking medical care, and thousands fewer will die from flu complications.

High-dose flu vaccine is preferred for people older than 65. The high-dose influenza vaccine has been shown to be beneficial for older adults. However, if the high-dose version of the vaccine is not available, the standard-dose vaccine is still recommended.

The best time to get vaccinated is late September through October. It takes approximately two weeks for the body to build immunity against influenza after vaccination. Getting a flu shot prior to November will give you the best protection, but it’s never too late to get vaccinated.

Talk to your doctor

There’s no doubt many people still may be hesitant to venture out to their doctors' offices because of the pandemic. However, healthcare providers like UVa Health are taking all necessary precautions to ensure the safety of their patients and staff. Prior to making an appointment, talk to your doctor about your safety concerns and discuss possible alternatives to get your flu vaccine elsewhere in the community if you prefer.

To learn more about UVa Health primary care services, go to uvahealth.com.

Dr. Steven Heim is a family medicine physician at UVa Family Medicine Stoney Creek. 

VITAL SIGNS This column, which promotes community health, is sponsored by Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, Region Ten Community Services Board, Thomas Jefferson Health District and the University of Virginia Heath System.

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