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With influenza (flu) season right around the corner, now may be the time to book an appointment to get your flu shot. But with COVID-19 vaccine boosters on the horizon, it's understandable if you have questions in regard to both inoculations — including whether or not it's safe and/or effective to schedule both at the same time.
Last year, the U.S. saw a decline in flu circulation within weeks of COVID-19 being declared an emergency and preventative measures being put into place, including social distancing and mask-wearing, according to the CDC. However, this year's flu season is anyone's guess, especially as people return to their offices for work or begin traveling more, while the contagious Delta variant continues to spread across the U.S.
Thankfully, the preventative measures that protect you against COVID-19 — such as wearing masks, washing your hands, and social distancing — also work against other respiratory illnesses (i.e. the flu). And an important one of those preventative measures includes (yup!) getting a vaccine. That's why the CDC recommends everyone over the age of 6 get a flu vaccine, just like they recommend everyone eligible receive a COVID-19 vaccination as well. (Related: Here's Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus and Immune Deficiencies)
COVID-19 Boosters and the Flu Shot
Ok, so you need a COVID booster and a flu shot. But which should you prioritize? And is it ok to get them close together — or even at the same time?
First things first: If you're eligible, get your COVID-19 vaccine ASAP, says Vivek Cherian, M.D., an internal medicine physician affiliated with the University of Maryland Medical System. Additionally, Dr. Cherian recommends getting your COVID-19 booster as soon as you're eligible for that, too. ICYDK, you can likely expect to get a COVID-19 booster shot eight months after your last dose, according to the CDC. (As of publication, the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are the only coronavirus inoculations that will soon be available for boosters.)
You shouldn't hold off on getting your COVID vaccination or booster in order to get your flu shot because, actually, you can get them at the same time.
"Per the CDC's official guidelines, COVID vaccines can be administered simultaneously with other vaccines on the same day, as well as co-administration within 14 days," says Dr. Cherian. (Reminder: It takes 14 days for your body to build immunity against the virus after being vaxxed.) "If you have any hesitation, however, it doesn't hurt to let the 14-day period run its course and then to get the flu vaccine after," he says.
On that note, there are just two reasons you may want to consider spacing them out: First, if you've had any allergic or adverse reactions to vaccines in the past (including the flu shot or the COVID vaccine), it's best to check with your doc before getting them at the same time, says Dr. Cherian. Second, "if you've never had a flu vaccine, or are yet to have a COVID-19 vaccine and are now considering getting one, I'd actually recommend spacing out your vaccines intentionally so if you do get hives (or any other type of allergic reaction) you would actually know which vaccine caused it," says Dr. Cherian. When in doubt, it's always a good idea to touch base with a doctor. (Read more: What Are the Most Common Flu Shot Side Effects?)
Either way, Dr. Cherian strongly suggests getting both vaccines as soon as you're eligible. "The flu and COVID-19 are two different viruses so the vaccine for one is not interchangeable with the other. You should absolutely get both because each individual vaccine provides a level of protection against that particular virus." Sadly, the flu shot won't protect you against COVID-19, so getting both really is really imperative this year.
What to Expect Regarding Side Effects
It's generally safe and convenient for most people to get both shots at the same time, but it's unclear what sort of side effects you might encounter if you opt to get both vaccines at once. "There haven't been any specific studies to determine side effects of simultaneous administration of both influenza and COVID vaccines, so it's really a best guess in terms of a side-effect profile," says Dr. Cherian. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About COVID-19 Vaccine Side Effects)
Overall, you can expect similar symptoms as you may have had in the past with flu shots — though "it's possible your symptoms might be slightly more pronounced," he says. "Practically speaking, both vaccines will be administered in different arms, so... both of your arms may be sore as opposed to just one." Common side effects of the flu vaccine — including soreness or redness at the injection site, headaches, fever, nausea, achy muscles, and fatigue — tend to overlap with those of the COVID-19 vaccines and boosters. So, if you've received one or both before, you'll likely know what to expect ahead of time. Neither vaccine should amplify any type of reaction you'd have with the other, and plenty of people — including infants and very young children — commonly receive multiple vaccines at once, so rest assured knowing it's a safe and common practice.
What to Expect from this Year's Flu Season
Though the official start of flu season varies by region and from season to season, the severity of the 2021-2022 flu season is difficult for experts to predict at this time, according to the CDC. The organization notes that last year's historic low rates might mean reduced immunity among the general population, resulting in a potentially early and severe flu season this year — yikes.
But "if the Delta variant continues to be rampant this flu season, there's a good chance that the flu will be dampened (as it was last season) as folks are continuing to wear masks due to the ongoing pandemic, therefore reducing the chances of propagating the flu," says Dr. Cherian. "That being said, flu seasons have been notoriously difficult to predict in the past, so ultimately time will tell." (Related: Can Face Masks for COVID-19 Also Protect You from the Flu?)
So by now, if you haven't noticed, getting your flu vaccine is crucial, says Dr. Cherian. Specifically, you should aim to get your flu shot before the end of October (and ideally sooner). With hospitals and health care centers seeing an influx of patients due to the highly transmissible Delta variant, it's especially important to prevent any illness you can. And since COVID-19 boosters are not yet approved for the general population, getting your flu shot now is a great way to heed off one type of preventable sickness.
"I have a strong feeling that COVID is so widespread at this point that it is here to stay for the foreseeable future, be it the ongoing pandemic or a more seasonal virus like the flu," says Dr. Cherian. "With that in mind, we obviously are going to want to continue protecting the population, and with a virus that is constantly evolving and mutating, an annual vaccine may ultimately be the answer — but time will tell." What is known is that both viruses can cause severe illness (such as hospitalization, intensive care, or a ventilator to help them breathe), which means that vaccination is your best bet to stay healthy and safe in the coming months.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it's possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.