Getting a flu shot lessens stress on health care providers

Dear Doctors: Do I really have to get a flu shot this year? I’m still social distancing, wearing a mask and not attending indoor events. I got the shot last year, but then there wasn’t any flu around at all. Anyway, I just got a booster for COVID-19, so I’m uneasy about getting the flu shot, too.

Dear Reader: We suspect you won’t be surprised that our answer is yes, you absolutely should get your flu shot this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges everyone 6 months old and older to be vaccinated against the flu before the start of this year’s season.

It’s true that last year’s flu season was a historically mild one. This was due in large part to widespread stay-at-home orders and the robust masking and social distancing that everyone practiced when they did venture out. Another contributing factor was that, due to the pandemic, people didn’t visit their doctors and urgent care centers when they became ill. Many cases of the flu went undiagnosed. This left us with incomplete data about the actual scope of illness. Now, after 18 months of limited contact outside of their immediate households, people are once again venturing out. They’re traveling, socializing, returning to workplaces and generally spending more time in public. This raises their risk of catching the flu, and also of passing it along to others.

Due to the overlap in flu and COVID-19 symptoms, including fever, headache, body aches, cough, exhaustion and congestion, you need a test to know whether it’s the influenza virus or the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 that’s making you ill. It’s an important distinction because COVID-19 requires specific and sustained precautions.

Additional medical visits strain our already-stressed health care system. All the more reason to get your flu shot, as well as the COVID-19 vaccine. Speaking of which, data collected by British and U.S. researchers finds no signs of trouble when people get both vaccines at the same time. If you’re still concerned, you can space out your vaccination appointments by a few weeks.

Elizabeth Ko, MD and Eve Glazier, MD

The good news is that by adding a flu vaccine to the precautions you’re already taking, you’re significantly lowering your risk of getting seriously ill. Exceptions to the flu shot recommendation are people with severe allergies to any ingredient in a flu vaccine. Your health care provider can help you determine if that’s the case. People with egg allergies need to discuss the vaccine with their health care providers. So do those who have had Guillain-Barre syndrome. Depending on the specifics, some people in each of these categories may be advised not to get the flu vaccine. However, that’s a minute subset of people who are eligible for the vaccine. By getting vaccinated, you’re not only protecting yourself, but also your family, your community and the health care providers who are working so hard -- and risking so much -- to keep us all safe.

Our flu season runs from October to May, with peak flu activity occurring between December and March. It takes about two weeks after a flu shot for immunity to kick in, so the time to get vaccinated is now.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA 90025. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)


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