UAB Medicine News
When You Protect Against the Flu, You Fight COVID, Too
Viruses spread fast during the cold and flu season, which peaks during the winter months. The good news is that the steps you take to avoid catching and spreading the flu also help with COVID-19.
As the influenza season approaches, protecting yourself and others from flu and COVID-19 becomes a more complicated health issue. First, although the risk of catching COVID-19 and the flu is not known, it is possible, and having both viruses at the same time could be serious. Also, a bad flu season likely would put additional stress on a health care system already stretched thin by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flu activity was unusually low during the 2020-2021 influenza season. The number of flu-related hospitalizations was the lowest recorded since this type of tracking began in 2005. Medical experts say that COVID-19 safety measures such as wearing face masks, staying home, hand-washing, increased ventilation of indoor spaces, and social distancing probably contributed to the decline of flu cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. This suggests that efforts to avoid the flu go hand in hand with COVID-19 protection measures.
Flu and COVID-19 Vaccines
Here’s what you need to know about protecting yourself and others this flu season:
- It is safe to get a flu shot at the same time you get the COVID-19 vaccine. Getting both the same day is easy and convenient.
- It’s best to get a flu shot as soon as possible in the fall, but you should get it no later than the end of October, because it takes at least two weeks for antibodies against the flu to fully develop following vaccination.
- It’s best to get your entire family vaccinated. Even if you personally plan to get your flu shot, other family members could bring viruses into the home if they haven’t gotten one. Encourage other members of your household and even neighbors to get the flu vaccine.
Most of us already are familiar with ways to protect against the flu, but this advice is worth repeating – especially since it also applies to COVID-19:
- Practice good hand hygiene: It’s easy to get in a rush and not wash your hands for the full 20 seconds recommended by medical professionals. Take the time to do it right, do it often, and make sure to have hand hygiene supplies available. Always wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer after coughing or sneezing.
- Limit household visitors: As much as you may enjoy houseguests, it’s wise to limit your exposure to visitors in the home during peak flu season. Ask potential visitors who have been exposed to the flu or have flu symptoms to not visit until they are better or some time passes.
- Mask up: Most research shows that flu viruses are spread from particles that become airborne when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. That means that particles landing on surfaces, skin, and clothing may be transferred to the mouth and eyes, possibly leading to infection. Also, recent research shows that the smallest droplets from coughs and sneezes are so tiny that they can remain airborne much longer – and travel greater distances – than previously believed. This increases the chance of inhaling contaminated air in offices, elevators, airplanes, classrooms, waiting rooms, and other indoor spaces.
- Pay attention to symptoms: Sometimes a common cold can feel like the flu, but don’t gamble during flu season. Fever, aches, chills, tiredness, and sudden onset (which can be easily recalled by simply remembering “F.A.C.T.S.”) usually are signs of flu, not a common cold. Sudden onset is the best clue. If you felt mild aches and fever when you woke up and they get worse by noon, see a doctor as soon as possible. Prescription antiviral medications can reduce how bad the symptoms feel and how long the flu lasts, and these medications work best when taken within 48 hours of the first symptoms. For people with chronic medical conditions, this could spare them a hospital stay.
- Watch out for contact: It is possible to transmit the flu to others as early as 36 hours before any symptoms show. In fact, spreading the flu during this period may be more likely, since a lack of symptoms may make infected people less cautious. Just as you would with COVID-19 exposures, if you are in close proximity to anyone who has the flu virus, consider yourself a risk to others, and exercise as much caution as possible – no matter how you are feeling.