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Winter Health Guide: Article 1 of 6

Flu Season and COVID-19

Private: Daniel A. Solomon, MD
Contributor Daniel A. Solomon, MD

Getting the influenza (flu) vaccine is more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic as we face the risk of both the flu virus and the coronavirus spreading at the same time. Flu cases usually start to increase in October and infections typically peak between December and February. Timing of the flu season is unpredictable, though.

This year, the best way to stay healthy is to get both the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine. If you haven’t received your vaccines yet, it’s not too late. Getting vaccinated can help protect you, your family and your community from serious illness.

How is this flu season different?

The 2020-2021 flu season was the mildest on record, probably due to the measures taken to slow the spread of COVID-19.  As our behavior has changed over the past few months with decreased social distancing and return to in-person learning for children, we have seen increased spread of some respiratory viruses such as rhinovirus and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).  We are likely to see increased spread of flu as well, but it’s difficult to predict how severe this flu season will be. 

With COVID-19 continuing to spread in our communities, the addition of circulating flu could stress health care capacity. 

It is impossible to distinguish between COVID-19 and flu based on symptoms alone. If both viruses are spreading in your community and you have symptoms, ask your health care provider about getting a diagnostic test. The result will help guide your treatment. It also helps determine how long you need stay home from school or work so that you don’t spread infection to others.

“We need to use all the tools in our toolkit to decrease the risk of spreading viruses. The most important prevention tool we have is vaccination and I would stress the importance of getting both the COVID-19 vaccine and the influenza vaccine this season. “

Daniel A. Solomon, MD

Who should get the flu vaccine?

Everyone age 6 months and older should get the flu vaccine. Like COVID-19, the flu is an illness that can lead to serious health complications and even death. Getting the flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself. It can help reduce your risk of getting the flu or needing medical care in a hospital.

Pregnant people, people age 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions are at increased risk of serious health problems from both viruses. And while most young children seem to be less affected by COVID-19, the flu can cause serious illness in children.

Get your flu vaccine as soon as possible. It takes the body about 2 weeks after vaccination to make enough antibodies to protect you from flu infection. Children who are getting the flu vaccine for the first time may need two doses, given several weeks apart. Pregnant people can safely get the flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccination during pregnancy allows pregnant people to pass antibodies to their baby during pregnancy and after birth through breastfeeding. This helps protect babies younger than 6 months who are too young to get their own flu or COVID-19 vaccines.

How do the flu and COVID-19 spread?

Both viruses can spread easily from one person to another, between people who are in close contact. Flu and COVID-19 are spread mainly by droplets released when people with either illness cough, sneeze or talk. Droplets can travel through the air and land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. These people may inhale droplets into the lungs.

For flu and some respiratory viruses, it is also possible to get infected by physical contact with other people. For example, you may pass infection by shaking hands or hugging another person. Some people may get infected by touching a surface or object that has virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes.

Both the flu virus and the coronavirus may be spread to others by people before they begin having symptoms or when they have very mild symptoms. Some people are infected with these viruses and never develop symptoms. When a person is infected but doesn’t have symptoms, they’re called asymptomatic. But asymptomatic people can still spread infection to others.

How can you protect your family from flu and COVID-19?

There are steps everyone can take to help protect themselves, their families and their communities from infection.

“We need to use all the tools in our toolkit to decrease the risk of spreading viruses,” said Dr. Solomon. “The most important prevention tool we have is vaccination and I would stress the importance of getting both the COVID-19 vaccine and the influenza vaccine this season. In addition, we should build on the lessons we have learned in the last year: Continued use of masks indoors in public spaces can slow the spread of both respiratory viruses.”

Prevent flu and COVID-19 infection

Here are steps you can take to prevent flu and COVID-19 infection:

  • Get your flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine. Getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent illness.
  • Monitor your health every day. Stay alert to symptoms, including cough, chills, fatigue, fever, shortness of breath, etc. If you’re not feeling well, take your temperature, stay away from others in your home and don’t go out in public. Call your health care provider if you think you’re sick. Testing is the only way to know for sure what illness you may have.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after you’ve been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. If you don’t have access to soap and water, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Avoid close contact with others. In public, leave 6 feet of distance between yourself and people who don’t live in your household. If a family member is sick at home, keep at least 6 feet away. If possible, stay in separate rooms and use separate bathrooms until they’ve recovered.
  • Wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose when you’re in public. The mask helps protect other people in case you are infected. Learn about mask recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. You can also cough or sneeze into inside of your elbow to help prevent the spread of germs. Be sure to throw used tissues in the trash right away. Immediately wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces around the home every day. This includes doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets and sinks.

Can COVID-19 safety measures help prevent the spread of flu?

Yes. One positive outcome of the pandemic is that behavior changes have made a big impact around the world and there have been some key lessons learned.

“Some of the measures that we took to decrease the spread of COVID also decreased the spread of influenza and this bears out in the data,” said Dr. Solomon. “The 2020-2021 flu season was the lightest on record by far. We saw a dramatic decrease in illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths caused by influenza. This was likely due to social distancing, sustained use of face masks, remote learning for children and decreased travel. It is important to recognize that these restrictions came at a significant cost. I think our goal should be to leverage the lessons we learned about the most effective tools to mitigate spread while allowing for some return to normalcy.”

Private: Daniel A. Solomon, MD
Daniel A. Solomon, MD

Dr. Solomon is an infectious disease specialist at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Before you go,

Get additional tips on keeping your family healthy and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more COVID-19 articles.