It’s getting to the time of year when you’ll hear people say they got the “flu bug.” But, there’s a big difference between something like the stomach flu and influenza—which is a specific acute respiratory illness caused by the influenza A or B virus.
Of course this year, another illness has entered the mix. While COVID-19 often causes flu-like symptoms, it is also different than traditional influenza.
“We’re in unprecedented times, certainly in modern times, with this horrible pandemic we’ve been coping with and fighting. It’s really taken over our lives in a lot of aspects. I think everybody has been dreading the addition of piling on influenza illness on top of COVID-19. So, there’s been a lot of focus by healthcare providers and healthcare organizations to do whatever we can do to keep people as healthy as possible during the influenza season,” states Dr. Pete Mikkelsen, Medical Director of the Emergency Department and Employee Health at Pullman Regional Hospital.
One such action is to encourage the patient community to get the influenza vaccine. It’s especially important this flu season, as hospitals are already dealing with COVID-19 and everything it takes to keep patients and hospital staff safe.
“If we have an especially bad flu season, a lot of people are going to be getting very sick. They may not get the care they need, just because the system may be overburdened,” warns Dr. Mikkelsen. “I think that’s really the main reason why it's important to do everything you can about influenza this year. It’s about protecting yourself and about protecting others.”
Does the Flu Vaccine Give You the Flu?
One common myth surrounding the flu vaccine is that it gives you the flu. This is false, says Dr. Mikkelsen. It is an inactivated vaccine, meaning there is no “live” virus that can infect a person with influenza. However, he also doesn’t want to minimize the way people may feel after receiving the vaccine.
“We think that sometimes the timing is just bad. You get the shot and then experience particular symptoms, but it’s not from the shot,” avers Dr. Mikkelsen.
In fact, research has investigated the difference between a saline shot and an influenza shot, and the only difference between the two was that individuals reported their arm to be slightly sorer with the flu vaccine. “I think for a lot of folks, that’s probably not enough of a reason to not get the flu shot,” Dr. Mikkelsen adds.
Preventative Measures to Take Against the Flu
The flu vaccine is certainly a preventative priority, but there are other actions people can take to protect themselves—many the same as individuals are already doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Wearing face coverings, proper hand-washing, avoiding sick people, and abstaining from large gatherings are all effective in warding off influenza infection. Doing your best to stay generally healthy—eating well, exercising, hydration, sleep—is also key.
What to Do If You Think You’re Sick
Both influenza and COVID-19 are respiratory viruses, so symptoms do overlap. It can be very difficult, if not impossible, to discriminate between the two just based on your symptoms or even upon a doctor’s examination.
“If you think you have COVID-19, or especially this year if you think you have influenza, it’s important to access healthcare. Call your doctor, your nurse practitioner, your physician assistant, or go to a location of care,” urges Dr. Mikkelsen. “The reason is that one, you need to know if you have COVID-19, and secondly, if you have influenza, you need to know that too. You don’t want to spread it to others, but there are also medications available for influenza.”
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