2020-2021 Flu Season
This year has been a very important year with how we practice health care, and taking care of our body. COVID-19 has captured everyone’s attention and been in the news daily for the greater portion of this year, and will likely continue until things quiet down. The flu season, which peaks from December to February, with some activity lasting through May, is now upon us. During a bad flu season 40 to 50 million Americans may catch the flu with 800,000 requiring hospitalization as per infectious disease experts at UC San Francisco. That makes this year’s flu shot even more important than ever. Here’s why.
1. Influenza Symptoms are Similar to COVID-19 Symptoms
Influenza symptoms can range from fever or feeling feverish/chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue with occasional vomiting and diarrhea. These symptoms are very similar to COVID-19 which in addition, can for some but not all people, create loss/change of smell/taste and occasional rashes. If you don’t get the flu shot it can make it more difficult to determine whether you are having flu or COVID-19.
2. The Flu Can Cause Serious Complications
The flu shot has been shown to reduce hospitalizations by 70% and decrease flu deaths by 22%. Most people who get the flu will have symptoms resolve by 2 weeks, but some people can develop pneumonia as a result of flu which can be life-threatening and could be fatal. Sinus and ear infections can happen from moderate flu or when co-infections happen from flu virus and bacteria. Other serious complications can be that it can trigger asthma, multi-organ failure, or inflammation of the heart brain or muscle. Anyone can get sick with the flu, but high risk populations can have more severe outcomes. High risk populations include people 65 years and older or people with certain chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, COPD, diabetes, or heart disease, pregnant women and children).
3. Influenza Strains Change Every Year
There are more than 100 strains of the influenza virus, but only four strains can be included in the flu shot. Each year epidemiologists get together to predict which four strains are most likely to be hitting the U.S. during our flu season and include those in the 2020-2021 flu seasons vaccine. Just because you got last year’s flu shot does not mean that you have protection for the following year’s strains of influenza.
4. Risk of Overwhelming Hospitals
The effectiveness of the flu vaccine can range from 20 to 60 percent depending on how well scientists predicted the strains for the coming season. Effectiveness can also vary person to person depending on their age and health. The flu vaccine might not prevent you getting the flu, but it likely will make the illness less serious which could sometimes mean being at home vs the hospital. Worst-case scenario is that this coming winter might have a surge in COVID-19 cases which might fill the ICUs so that even with a mild flu season the combination of both respiratory viruses could mean less capacity for patients needing intensive care.
5. Testing Could Be Strained
As we have seen throughout this year, reagents, lab centers, testing capacity and availability has had its shortages. The definitive test for flu uses the same approach that we use for COVID-19 tests-which is PCR. As of right now schools, flights, and return to work has increased volume for testing of COVID-19 which are using the laboratory resources to run those tests.
6. You Don’t Want to have Both at the Same Time
It is possible to catch COVID-19 and the flu at the same time, although it is too early to tell how common this will be. What is clear is that both target the lung which will create added stress on the body which might mean you get in to trouble faster with possibly needing hospitalization. Having a viral infection also tends to make you more susceptible to secondary infections because the person’s immune system is not working at its usual strength. In the 2018-2019 flu season about 49% of Americans received the flu vaccine, which averted an estimated 4.4 million illnesses, 58,000 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths.
Jessica Levatino, MD
© Excel Urgent Care and Affiliates 2020