Flu shots especially important in COVID-19 era


Dear Doctors: I'm 23 years old and hardly ever get sick, not even a cold. I usually skip getting a flu shot, but my dad keeps telling my brother and me that it's really important to get one this year. Can you explain why? Is it going to protect us against the coronavirus?

Dear Reader: Kudos to your dad for spreading the word about flu shots. Although the annual flu shot won't safeguard against the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, it will add an important measure of protection during a particularly perilous flu season. As many of you already know, there can be a great deal of overlap in symptoms of the flu and COVID-19. Both are respiratory illnesses that affect the lungs and interfere with the ability to breathe. Symptoms in each can include fever, chills, body aches, shortness of breath, sore throat, headache, cough, chest congestion, difficulty breathing and fatigue. Both the flu and COVID-19 can lead to pneumonia, hospitalization and even death. During last year's flu season, 490,600 people were hospitalized, and 34,200 people died. And even when it's not life-threatening, the flu guarantees a week or two of misery.

As we said earlier, a flu shot won't protect against the novel coronavirus. However, it does reduce the risk of becoming infected with the influenza virus. Some people do get the flu despite having had the vaccine. However, they often have milder symptoms and shorter illnesses than those who go unvaccinated. And this year, with the spread of COVID-19 not yet under control, it's important to do everything we can to make sure medical resources are available for those who are the most seriously ill. It's quite possible we'll see another surge of COVID-19 this winter. With health care workers and facilities already overburdened, we should do everything we can to lessen the strain.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that everyone 6 months of age and older be vaccinated against the flu each year. Inactivated influenza vaccines are approved for children as young as 6 months. That's important because children under the age of 5, and particularly those younger than 2, are at high risk of developing serious complications when they become ill with the flu. That includes ear infections, dehydration and pneumonia. Your child's health care provider will advise you on the appropriate vaccine for your child. Most people get a standard flu shot. Adults 65 years and older, whose immune systems have slowed down, are urged to get the high-dose vaccine formulated specifically for senior citizens. For people with an egg allergy, there is an egg-free version of the flu vaccine that may be appropriate.

Elizabeth Ko, MD and Eve Glazier, MD

The good news is that flu shots are already widely available. They're free with most types of insurance and are often available at discounted rates at flu shot clinics. Free flu shots are also available through community organizations and public health departments. For flu shot locations in your area, visit vaccinefinder.org.

(Send your questions to [email protected], or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)