The number of vaccines administered to kids and adults in Oregon dropped dramatically during the first half of this year, according to the Oregon Health Authority. Hospitals are actively responding to the pandemic, but they have also been preparing for the more than 200,000 people in the U.S. hospitalized every year due to the flu. Because of COVID-19, it’s more important than ever before to get a flu shot. Flu and COVID-19 symptoms can be similar and a flu vaccine is the best way to reduce your likelihood to get very sick from the flu.
Below, pediatric infectious disease expert Dr. Judy Guzman-Cottrill answers some frequently asked questions about the flu and the flu vaccine.
What is the flu?
The flu (influenza) is an infection of the nose, throat and lungs caused by influenza viruses. Rarely, it also can affect other parts of the body, including the heart and brain. Flu viruses cause illness, hospital stays and deaths in the United States each year. There are many different flu viruses, and sometimes a new (novel) flu virus emerges. The last time we saw a novel flu strain emerge was the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus, which is still circulating a decade later.
How does the flu impact kids?
Children with the flu commonly need medical care, especially before they turn 5. Severe influenza complications are most common in children younger than 2, and among children with chronic health problems like asthma and diabetes. Kids in these categories are at especially high risk of developing serious flu complications.
How does flu spread?
Both H1N1 flu and seasonal flu are thought to spread mostly from person to person through the coughs and sneezes of people who are sick with the flu. This is the same for COVID-19. People also may get sick by touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or nose.
What are the symptoms of the flu? How does it differ from COVID-19?
Symptoms of seasonal flu include high fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people also may have vomiting and diarrhea. These symptoms are very similar to COVID-19; however, many children with COVID-19 might have either no fever or low-grade fever.
How long can a sick person spread the flu to others?
People infected with flu “shed,” or release into the environment, virus and may be able to infect others from one day before getting sick to five to seven days after. This can be longer in some people, especially young children and people with weakened immune systems.
How can I protect my child against flu?
Get a seasonal flu vaccine for yourself and your child to protect against seasonal flu viruses. Take everyday steps to prevent the spread of all flu viruses (many of these are the same steps we are taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19), including:
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. If soap and water are not available, alcohol-based hand sanitizers also are effective.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Teach your child to take these actions too.
- Try to keep your child from having close contact (closer than 6 feet) with people, including anyone in the household who is sick.
- Keep surfaces like bedside tables, surfaces in the bathroom, kitchen counters and toys for children clean by wiping them down with a household disinfectant according to directions on the product label.
- Throw away tissues and other disposable items used by sick people in your household in the trash.
- Children older than 2 should wear masks if they are out in public and in places where it would be difficult to maintain 6 feet of distance from others.
What should I use for hand cleaning?
Washing hands with soap and running water for 20 seconds will help protect against many germs. When soap and running water are not available, wipes or gels with alcohol in them can be used. The gels should be rubbed into your hands until they are dry, and be sure to focus on rubbing your fingers and fingertips with the gel.
Is there medicine to treat the flu?
Although most people do not need antiviral drugs to treat the flu, there are medications available. The priority use for these drugs is to treat people who are seriously ill or who have a medical condition that puts them at high risk of serious flu complications. These medications need to be prescribed by a primary care provider and they work best when started early, during the first two days of illness.
Seasonal influenza vaccination recommendations
Vaccine can be given with a flu shot or with a nasal spray. Every child older than 6 months who is eligible, not just those children in high-risk groups, should be vaccinated. The seasonal flu vaccine protects against three influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season. The 2020-2021 flu vaccine will protect against the influenza A strains H1N1 and H3N2, and influenza B.
The CDC also recommends that people in contact with children get a seasonal flu vaccine in order to protect the child (or children) in their lives from the flu.
Your primary care provider can help determine what your child should receive. In addition, there may be the option to receive the intranasal flu vaccine instead of the shot.
Remember: The vaccine will not prevent respiratory illness caused by other viruses, , and it may take up to two weeks for protection to develop after vaccination.
What about babies younger than 6 months?
Babies younger than 6 months are too young to receive the flu vaccine. One way to decrease their chances of getting the flu is to make sure their close contacts, family members and caregivers get the vaccine.
Is it possible to get both the flu and COVID-19?
Yes, and nobody knows if having both infections will cause more severe illness. Because we do not know the effects of having both the flu and COVID-19 infections at the same time, we urge everyone to get their flu shot as soon as available this year. It is highly possible that flu viruses and the virus that causes COVID-19 will both be spreading this fall and winter in Oregon.
Where can we get our flu shots?
Please visit this page to learn when and where you can get your flu shot from the safety of your car. For anyone 6 months and older. No appointment needed. Walk-ups are welcome.
Your children’s primary care provider can help you figure out other places to get the vaccine if this option doesn’t work for your family’s schedule.