“Time to get a flu shot” is a familiar theme heard in October. But that message is being conveyed with a greater sense of urgency this year.
As cases of COVID-19 continue to tick upward, health officials are hoping that people will take strong precautions against the flu to avoid a “twindemic” of seasonal influenza combined with the coronavirus.
“Influenza and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses caused by different viruses,” said Trinity Health Infectious Disease Specialist Casmiar Nwaigwe, MD. “They are not mutually exclusive. People can get both at the same time.”
While not a lot of evidence is available regarding the implications of contracting both viruses at once, a logical concern is that it could very well put a strain on a person’s immune system. “You could be at risk for a longer illness or worse complications,” Dr. Nwaigwe noted.
Another concern is that because some of the symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 are similar, it may be hard to tell the difference between the two based on symptoms alone. “There is an overlap,” Dr. Nwaigwe said. “Testing would be needed to confirm a diagnosis – although there is one symptom that is unique to COVID-19 – the loss of taste and smell. If you can’t smell, or if everything tastes bland, it’s most likely COVID-19,” he said, adding, “not everyone experiences that symptom.”
There are some key differences between the flu and COVID-19. COVID-19 seems to spread more easily than flu and causes more serious illnesses in some people. It can also take longer before people show symptoms, and people can be contagious for a longer period. Another important difference is there is a vaccine to protect against the flu. There is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19.
On the positive side, Dr. Nwaigwe says there are reasons for optimism as we head into the flu season – namely our behavior. “As people comply with precautions for COVID-19, we expect it might result in a slower flu season because the same behaviors that help prevent COVID-19 are the same ones that prevent influenza, i.e. wearing masks, covering coughs and sneezes, washing hands.”
To avoid a twindemic, do the following:
- Get a flu shot
- Wear a mask in public
- Practice social distancing
- Use handwashing and/or sanitizers
- Cover coughs and sneezes
- Avoid large groups, especially indoors
Trinity Health offers flu shots at several of its primary care locations in Minot and throughout the region. For more information, please visit trinityhealth.org/influenza for a schedule of where and when to get a flu shot. Vaccines are also available by appointment from any Trinity Health primary care provider.