Editor’s note: This article originally ran Aug. 30, 2021 and was updated Sept. 4, 2022 and Dec. 13, 2022.
This winter is shaping up to be a doozy when it comes to infectious respiratory viruses: COVID-19, RSV and the flu.
But other than a COVID-19 booster and washing your hands a lot, what can you do to stay healthy?
Don’t forget your flu shot. Adults and children 6 months and older are eligible, and the shot can help keep your family healthy.
“The flu shot may be more important than ever this year,” says UNC Health family medicine physician Sarah Ruff, MD. “With high levels of flu and other viruses circulating, you want all the protection you can get.”
Pediatric hospital beds are filling up very fast with respiratory viruses of all kinds, Dr. Ruff says. “Not just the flu, but even RSV and common cold viruses that are hitting kids harder this year, even kids we wouldn’t expect to be very sick.”
The flu shot can help keep adults and children out of the hospital, and in school and at work.
It’s not too late to get your flu shot this season, and it’s OK to get the flu shot and a COVID-19 vaccine at the same visit.
Here are three reasons to get a flu shot this year.
1. The flu shot prevents severe cases of the flu, which kills tens of thousands of people each year.
The flu shot helps protect you from serious illness; you might still get the flu, but you’re less likely to need medical care and hospitalization.
Pre-pandemic, when doctors and patients were unmasked, “I would get the flu almost every year,” Dr. Ruff says. “But because I got the flu shot, it would be so mild I would barely even know I got the flu.”
Flu activity is high across the country. If you don’t get the flu shot, you’re at higher risk of being hospitalized with pneumonia that started as the flu, especially if you’re older or have a chronic illness, such as heart disease or lung disease. You need a flu shot each year; scientists change its composition to match the flu viruses in circulation that season.
2. Symptoms of the flu, COVID-19 and common colds are similar. Vaccination helps reduce the odds you’ll feel sick.
There are vaccines to fight COVID-19 and the flu. There is not yet an RSV vaccine.
“Without a test, there’s no way to tell the difference between COVID, regular cold and flu, so it’s really important to make sure that you’re limiting the chances that what you have is COVID or flu by getting vaccinated for both,” Dr. Ruff says. (Eventually, expect a combined flu and COVID-19 vaccine, but that’s likely a few years away, she says.)
Again, the flu vaccine won’t prevent all cases of the flu, but it can temper the severity of your symptoms, leading to less time off of work, school and social activities.
3. Get the flu shot to help protect others.
The flu is more dangerous for some groups of people: children under 2, especially newborns; people 65 and older; pregnant or immediately postpartum women; residents of nursing homes; people with chronic illnesses such as asthma, lung disease and heart disease; and those with chronic immune-suppressing conditions such as diabetes and cancer.
The more people who get vaccinated, the less flu will circulate in the community. That means fewer hospitalizations and deaths.
“Getting a flu shot each year,” Dr. Ruff says, “is the best way to stay ahead of the virus.”
Talk to your doctor about receiving a flu shot. Need a doctor? Find one near you.