Flu season is already underway. At the same time, hospitals are reporting increasing numbers of patients admitted with the latest strain of COVID-19.
“The numbers of people becoming infected with COVID-19 or the flu are increasing in our area,” says Dr. Zachary Baeseman, Associate Chief Medical Officer and Family Medicine Physician with ThedaCare. “We recommend that individuals ages 6 months and older get both a flu shot and the latest COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible.”
Dr. Baeseman noted that while the two diseases have similar symptoms, different viruses cause them. Thus, people need two separate vaccines to provide protection. He added that it’s OK to get flu and COVID-19 vaccinations at the same time.
Outlook for Fall 2023
This year, those with egg allergies are cleared to receive the regular flu vaccine. At the same time, Dr. Baeseman added that all individuals should receive vaccines at a place where medical professionals can quickly recognize and treat allergic reactions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting the flu vaccine by October to gain the best protection. The flu season typically runs from October through early spring in Wisconsin, with cases peaking in December through February.
This year’s flu vaccine targets the newest strains of the respiratory virus currently in circulation. The latest COVID-19 vaccine, made by Pfizer and Moderna, attacks a subvariant of omicron called XBB.1.5. This strain is responsible for more than 90% of current cases, according to the CDC.
“The flu can be a serious illness, especially for the very young, the very old, those with chronic health conditions, and pregnant women,” Dr. Baeseman says. “That’s because those groups run the highest risk of developing a complication from the illness. Those same groups also face the greatest risk of complications from COVID-19.”
How the Viruses Spread
Both the flu and COVID-19 viruses spread between people via small and large droplets that are expelled when infected people sneeze, cough, talk, laugh, sing, or yell. The droplets can linger in the air in indoor areas with poor ventilation. Shaking hands with people who are ill or touching surfaces where the virus is present also can infect people.
In the case of both diseases, people can spread the virus before the onset of symptoms, Dr. Baeseman says. This makes transmission harder to determine.
COVID-19 is generally more contagious than flu and is often transmitted during “super spreader” events such as weddings, funerals, or large social gatherings. People with COVID-19 may take longer to show symptoms and may be contagious longer after infection.
“The best advice for avoiding these diseases is to get vaccinated against both, wash your hands frequently, wear a mask in public places if you’re comfortable doing so, and avoid large crowds when local infection rates are high,” Dr. Baeseman says. “You should also stay home if you’re not feeling well.”
COVID-19 and Flu Symptoms
Symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 are similar and typically include:
- Fever and/or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle pain or body aches
- Diarrhea (more frequent in children with flu, but can occur in any age with COVID-19)
- Change in or loss of taste or smell, although this is more frequent with COVID-19
Likewise, both diseases can result in serious complications, including:
- Respiratory failure
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome (fluid in the lungs)
- Cardiac issues (for example, heart attacks and stroke)
- Multiple-organ failure (respiratory failure, kidney failure, shock)
- Worsening of chronic medical conditions involving the lungs, heart, or nervous system, or diabetes
- Inflammation of the heart, brain, or muscle tissues
Per the CDC, additional complications associated with COVID-19 can include:
- Blood clots in the veins and arteries of the lungs, heart, legs, or brain
- Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) and in adults (MIS-A)
“The flu and COVID-19 both can cause serious complications and death, especially for those in high-risk categories,” Dr. Baeseman says. “These are not illnesses to take lightly. It just makes sense to get vaccinated against both viruses to protect yourself and those you love.”