As you're scheduling your annual flu shot this year, you may find yourself wondering if the vaccine can kill two birds with one stone — by preventing the flu, while at the same time delivering some level of protection against COVID-19. Let's just say the answer is yes and no.
"The flu vaccine does not prevent COVID-19," David Cutler, MD, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Centre in Santa Monica, CA, told POPSUGAR. However, there's reason to believe that people being vaccinated could make this flu season — which will likely be coupled with rising cases of COVID-19 — a lot less severe, easing the strain on the healthcare system.
How the Flu Shot Can Help During the COVID-19 Pandemic
As Natasha Bhuyan, MD, a board-certified family physician and regional director at One Medical, explained in an earlier interview, there is some preliminary evidence that getting the flu shot may help reduce the severity of COVID-19. In a study of nearly 100,000 patients in Brazil, "people who received a recent flu shot were on average eight percent less likely to need [intensive care] treatment for COVID-19," Dr. Bhuyan said.
Early research isn't conclusive, and the reasons the flu shot may (or may not) help protect people against COVID-19 aren't immediately clear. "We could be seeing 'bystander immunity,' where our bodies nonspecifically enhance our response to other viruses after getting the flu vaccine. That's because our innate immune cells will defend the body against multiple pathogens, including those not targeted by the flu vaccine itself," she explained. "And there could also be cross-reactivity in the flu vaccine to the COVID-19 virus."
But even if it offers no protection from the novel coronavirus, "there are at least three ways the flu vaccine can help in the COVID-19 pandemic," Dr. Cutler said.
- Getting vaccinated can help prevent the flu from being confused with COVID-19. "You will be less likely to get flu symptoms like fever, cough, and body aches," he said. "These symptoms could be suspicious for COVID-19 and keep you out of work or isolated at home even if testing is negative because of the risk of a 'false negative' test."
- You'll be less likely to contract two viral infections at once. "You reduce the risk of getting simultaneous flu and COVID-19 infections, which could be significantly worse than either alone," Dr. Cutler told POPSUGAR.
- You won't have to worry as much about spreading COVID-19 to others. "If you had asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic COVID-19 — which is what most people get — you would be less likely to spread it when coughing from the flu."
So, if you weren't convinced yet that getting a flu shot this year is in everyone's best interest, hopefully you are now. Remember too that "the most important way you can prevent COVID-19, and at the same time also prevent flu, is to wear a mask and socially distance," Dr. Cutler said. You heard him.