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A healthcare provider prepares a masked patient for her flu shot.

Why getting a flu shot is so important this year

Flu shots have always been important, but they’re more critical than ever in 2020.

That’s because flu season is about to bump into the COVID-19 pandemic. These illnesses are different but may look similar at first glance, says Piedmont Family Physician Saju Mathew, M.D.

“A patient who comes in with flu-like symptoms could have symptoms that resemble COVID-19,” he explains. “You can imagine the dilemma for a doctor or provider who sees that patient.”

There are no vaccines available for COVID-19, but the flu vaccine is easy to get and protects you all season long.

What’s more, Dr. Mathew adds, getting your flu shot now could save other people later by freeing up medical resources and hospital space.

Flu and COVID-19 are a dangerous pair

Ever had the flu? You might recall symptoms like body aches, fever and chills.

This year, those symptoms could also indicate COVID-19, and you’ll need a doctor’s help to identify your illness. But Dr. Mathew says that limited resources and testing supplies may delay your diagnosis – and treatment.

“The treatment for the flu is drastically different from COVID-19,” he adds.

Flu has been around for a long time, so doctors can prescribe medications like Tamiflu that are specifically designed to fight it. COVID-19 is still very new, and treatment options are sparse.  

Additionally, distinguishing flu from COVID-19 takes time. When both infectious diseases are spreading, hospital space and resources could be strained, and the sickest people may not be able to receive timely care. 

“The flu season already kills tens of thousands of people every year,” Dr. Mathew says. “This is my take: Why not eliminate one respiratory virus this fall?”

When should I get my flu shot?

Try to get your shot as soon as shots become available in your area, Dr. Mathew says. One dose will protect you all season long, so it’s best to get it early and beat the rush.

If you had a shot in early 2020, you’ll still need another one now. Flu season starts anew each fall, and each vaccine is a little different from the last, Dr. Mathew says.

That’s because the vaccine is reformulated each season to match flu strains predicted to circulate. Even if you do get sick later in the season, your illness may be less severe if you’ve had your shot.

If you’re nervous about flu shots

Dr. Mathew knows that some people hesitate to get flu shots. Vaccine myths are commonplace, and Dr. Mathew routinely hears concerns about whether the flu shot could actually cause flu. (It doesn’t.)

If you still have questions or feel reluctant, don’t be afraid to talk to your provider.

“This is the time to have a conversation with your doctor about your hesitancy,” Dr. Mathew says.

Getting your flu shot now could help you avoid an infection later, keeping you healthier and saving doctors time, resources and hospital space.

“The bottom line is, we have a vaccine that works,” Dr. Mathew says. “With COVID-19, we don’t.”

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