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How Can You Prevent Flu During COVID-19? 6 Doctors Offer Advice

members of the Verywell Health Medical Review Board
Anju Goel, MD, MPH; Casey Gallagher, MD; Mary Choy, PharmD, BCGP, FASHP; Andy Miller, MD; Elizabeth Molina Ortiz, MD, MPH; Arno Kroner, DAOM, LAc.

Key Takeaways

  • Experts think continued vigilance against COVID-19 will also protect against the flu.
  • Get your flu shot as soon as you can to protect yourself.
  • If you're having trouble distinguishing between COVID-19 and flu symptoms, isolate yourself and call your doctor.

As flu season approaches, fear of a "twindemic" with COVID-19 may have you on high alert. As the U.S. reaches 7 million COVID-19 cases, we're bracing for another respiratory virus—influenza (flu)—that infected 35.5 million people during the 2018-2019 season. Despite the high infection rates and impending overlap, experts say there are steps you can take to protect yourself from both COVID-19 and the flu.

Prevention methods and screening protocols vary across the country, depending on the area's COVID-19 cases. To better understand this, we asked the Verywell Health Medical Review Board for the advice they’re sharing with their patients this flu season. Just like us, these physicians are beginning to navigate the new challenges a pandemic brings as it stretches into fall and winter. Overall, they're hopeful that continued COVID-19 safety precautions will protect us from both viruses.

Tips To Stay Protected During Flu Season

Experts think this year’s flu season may be milder than others due to the safety techniques—like social distancing and wearing a mask—adopted to curb COVID-19 spread. For countries in the southern hemisphere already experiencing flu season, this has proven to be the case.

“The same social distancing measures that protect us from COVID-19 also protect us from the flu,” says Anju Goel, MD, MPH, a public health consultant in California and director of professional development at the American Medical Women's Association. “Measures like maintaining 6 feet from others, masking, and washing hands frequently will become even more essential as we head into flu season this fall. When so much of this pandemic seems scary and out of our control, these behaviors offer concrete ways for us to manage our own health.”

These are two of the most proven flu-prevention steps for you to take now: get your flu shot and practice COVID-19 safety measures, like wearing a mask and social distancing. 

Get a Flu Shot

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines advise everyone 6 months old and older get a flu shot annually, with rare exceptions. This year, that guidance is even more important.

“This year and every year, I advise people to get vaccinated as early in the flu season as possible,” Goel says. “The longer you wait, the longer you are at risk of infection. Even if you are vaccinated as early as August, you will remain protected through the end of the flu season.”

“The ideal month to get your flu vaccine is the first month you can,” says Casey Gallagher, MD, co-founder and practicing dermatologist at the Boulder Valley Center for Dermatology in Colorado. “Part of the reason for that is to stay healthy so you don't have to visit your primary care physician later in the year when COVID-19 cases might be surging and doctors' offices might be busy.”

When Should You Get Your Flu Shot?

The consensus among our experts: as soon as possible. Flu shots are available at CVS and Walgreens pharmacies for free with most health insurance or about $30 to $40 out of pocket. You can also use the CDC’s vaccine finder to locate the most convenient place for you.

Elizabeth Molina Ortiz, MD, MPH, a primary care provider with Atrius Health in Massachusetts, says that the flu shot can help with the pandemic in a variety of ways. 

“First, it will decrease the number of people that come down with minor symptoms of the flu that become a concern for COVID-19,” she says. “Second, the flu shot will decrease the number of people that become very ill with the flu and need to be hospitalized. We want to have our health care system open and able to handle increased cases of COVID-19 should we have a second wave.”

Protect Your Well-being

An important part of staying healthy is taking care of your mental well-being. Research shows that unmanaged stress can lead to a weakened immune system.

One way you can stay on top of your health is by staying informed.

“We are learning on a daily basis and we should continue to read and reference reliable sources that use scientific evidence to guide recommendations,” Molina Ortiz says. 

Reliable resources for the latest on COVID-19 include:

One example Molina Ortiz points to is our increased understanding of COVID-19 transmission. At the start of the pandemic, experts weren’t sure how often transmission occurred from touching surfaces, so a large emphasis was placed on cleaning household objects and surfaces. Now that the CDC can confirm surface transmission is actually low in comparison to person-to-person contact, we can focus our efforts on practices that actually make a difference, like avoiding large crowds and wearing a mask.

“Remember that nobody has lived through this experience before, that experts are learning, and that it is a scary time for everyone,” says Andy Miller, MD, an infectious disease specialist and attending physician at Hospital for Special Surgery and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “People need to consider the big picture. Compassion for the sick and isolated, support for the terrified, and ongoing cheers of courage and hope for the scientists and health care workers and essential workers: that's what we need to have ready—in massive amounts—this fall and winter.”

What This Means For You

Measures used to protect against COVID-19, like wearing masks and avoiding crowded indoor spaces, will also help protect you from the flu. If you start to feel flu or COVID-19 symptoms, reach out to your doctor right away to determine what your next steps should be.

What To Do If You Start Experiencing Symptoms

If you wake up one morning with a scratchy throat or cough, taking cold medication and moving on won’t be enough this year. The next steps most of the Medical Review Board members we talked to advised are:

  • Isolate from family and others for 10 days
  • Call your primary doctor and get their recommendation on COVID-19 testing or flu testing. If you have to go into an office for testing, avoid public transportation if possible.

Shared Symptoms of COVID-19 and Flu

According to the CDC, similar symptoms of the illnesses include:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue 
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Headache
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (rare)

When trying to differentiate between the two, look for a loss of smell or taste. These can be early indicators that you may have COVID-19 instead of the flu.

“If you have underlying characteristics or conditions that put you at high risk of severe illness with either infection, contact your healthcare provider about getting tested for both viruses,” Goel says.

Once you’ve sought out advice from your primary care physician, "you may ask your healthcare provider if a pulse oximeter would be helpful to have at home," says Mary Choy, PharmD, BCGP, FASHP, director of pharmacy practice at New York State Council of Health-System Pharmacists and author. You can also take additional steps to boost your immune system, like staying well-rested and hydrated. 

What Is a Pulse Oximeter?

A pulse oximeter is a small device that measures your blood oxygen levels. Many COVID-19 patients experience low blood oxygen levels, so an at-home pulse oximeter could be a helpful tool to make sure potential low oxygen levels are caught early for someone with a mild case of COVID-19 self-treating at home. However, this device should not be used as a form of self-screening. 

“Immediately load up on zinc and high dose vitamin C,” says Arno Kroner, DAOM, LAc, an acupuncturist, herbalist, and integrative medicine doctor in California. “If you have a sore throat, immediately let zinc lozenges melt on the throat.”

We're facing an unprecedented health challenge with a pandemic and a seasonal virus, but there are straightforward ways to keep yourself and your family. safe. Our Medical Review Board members agree that the best actions you can take are monitoring symptoms and isolating as soon as you feel ill to keep from infecting others.

“Early treatment of flu or COVID-19 is what matters,” Kroner says. “Do not wait until symptoms have progressed.”

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Article Sources
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  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Similarities and Differences Between Flu and COVID-19​. Last updated August 31, 2020.