IU doctor explains why the flu vaccine is so important this year

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, reducing the spread of respiratory illnesses like influenza during fall and winter is more important than ever.

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Cold and flu season is approaching, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Photo by Getty Images

It's important to get your flu shot this season because of how similar the symptoms of flu are to COVID-19, and is required for those who will be on campus regularly. If you have flu symptoms, you will need to isolate until you can be screened and tested to confirm you do not have COVID-19.

Dr. Lana Dbeibo, an infectious disease expert on the IU Medical Response Team and assistant professor of clinical medicine at the IU School of Medicine, recently shared with Inside IU her thoughts about the flu versus COVID-19, the flu vaccine and what to do if you fall ill:

Question: Why is it so important I get a flu shot this year?

Answer: Flu vaccines reduce the risk of getting an infection with the flu and reduce the severity of the sickness. Plus, when you take the flu shot, you are protecting yourself as well as those around you.

It is also particularly important to take this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both the flu and COVID-19 can cause respiratory infections and pneumonia -- and in some cases death -- and medical professionals worry that if someone were to be infected with both these viruses at the same time, they might have a severe form of illness that would be much worse than each of them alone.

During this flu season, it is important to limit -- where possible -- all respiratory syndromes that could be consistent with COVID-19 since they all utilize the same testing, quarantine and hospital resources/infrastructure that COVID-19 patients require. These resources are limited. If they are used up in response to influenza outbreaks, we won't be able to adequately respond to COVID-19, which doesn't have a treatment or a vaccine. This will result in longer turnaround times, longer ER wait times, fewer tests, and potentially more morbidity and spread of COVID-19.

Q: How can I tell if I have the flu or COVID-19?

A: The only way to tell is to get tested. In addition, some people might be infected with both viruses, so it is not always one or the other. Given that COVID-19, flu and other common respiratory viruses cause similar symptoms, anytime you develop any of these symptoms -- no matter how mild -- you should assume it could be COVID-19 until proven otherwise by a test.

Q: Will a flu vaccine help me if I contract COVID-19?

A: No. However, it will reduce the risk of one virus so that you don't get both at the same time.

Q: What should I do if I test positive for the flu? Can I get COVID-19 and the flu at the same time? Can I get the flu more than once in a season?

A: If you test positive for the flu, you should remain in isolation until your symptoms improve and you have no fever for 24 hours without using fever-reducing medications. You can have both flu and COVID-19 at the same time. You can also get the flu more than once in a season because often there is more than one type of influenza virus circulating.

Q: How safe are flu vaccines?

A: Flu vaccines have a very good safety profile for individuals above 6 months of age. There are very rare medical exceptions for taking the flu vaccine.

Q: How should I prepare in case I need to isolate at home?

A: We should all be prepared to be in isolation or quarantine this season, either for the flu, COVID-19 or other viral infections. My advice:

  • Think ahead of time of the best place where you can safely isolate or quarantine.
  • Stock up on food that isn't easily perishable -- think canned soup or other canned products -- as well as water, sports drinks and juice.
  • Make sure you have at least a 14-day supply of your medications, hand sanitizer and masks for when you go to the doctor's office or the testing site.
  • Stock up on personal supplies, including cold and flu medications, and a first aid kit.