Updated November 13, 2023.
It’s that time of year again: flu season is back. As the fall and winter months roll in each year, millions of people come down with the uncomfortable respiratory illness. In fact, according to the CDC, about 8% of the U.S. population gets sick from the flu each season. While it may seem like getting sick is inevitable this time of year, the flu is preventable and there are several steps you can take to protect yourself and others from the virus. Here’s what you need to know to prepare for flu season:
What is the flu?
The flu is a highly contagious respiratory virus that comes on suddenly. Symptoms, such as body aches, fever, and a cough, typically develop one to four days after exposure, and can last from a few days to two weeks. Having the flu may include any or all of the following symptoms:
- Fever (usually 100.4°F or higher, lasting for several days), often with chills
- Body aches or muscle aches
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Eye pain, such as burning, pain on eye movement or sensitivity to light
- Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea or nausea/vomiting
And because the flu is caused by a virus, antibiotics that are effective against bacteria aren’t useful when you have the flu.
How do you get the flu?
The flu is spread person-to-person primarily from droplets that can travel through the air from coughing and sneezing, as well as by physical contact with contaminated surfaces like door handles, countertops or anything else an infected person touched recently. So practice your cough and sneeze technique and good hand hygiene to keep yourself and those around you healthy during flu season. Widespread mask use and practicing good social distancing will also dramatically reduce the spread of the flu.
Should I get a flu shot?
Yes! At One Medical, we encourage all our patients who are eligible to get vaccinated against the flu. It’s the single best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from getting the flu. In fact, the flu shot not only reduces your risk of getting the flu and lessens symptoms if you do get sick, it also helps prevent the flu from spreading. If you are in close contact with young children, anyone elderly or with a serious illness, getting vaccinated can reduce their chances of coming down with the flu and developing complications like pneumonia. Moreover, the flu shot is especially important for infants and children, anyone pregnant (or planning to become pregnant), those over the age of 50, those with a chronic medical condition, and those caring for someone who is at risk for complications of the flu. These special groups are at high risk of serious complications of flu, like hospitalization, pneumonia and even death.
Do I need a flu shot every year?
Yes, it’s recommended. Each year, the flu vaccine is updated to better match the strain(s) of flu expected to cause the majority of flu cases during the upcoming flu season. Because flu viruses can mutate from season to season, it’s important to get a flu shot every year to ensure you and your loved ones are protected. While it’s possible immunity from a prior year’s shot can be protective, One Medical stands with other bodies such as the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization in recommending annual flu vaccination for everyone 6 months and older.
When is the best time to get a flu shot?
The ideal time to get the flu shot is before the season starts, so we recommend getting vaccinated in September or October, once the current season’s vaccine becomes available. Because flu season in the U.S. can last as late as May though, it’s still worth getting vaccinated even after October. Also, it can take up to two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop and protect you against the flu, so keep that in mind when planning to get vaccinated.
Are flu vaccines safe?
Yes, very! Flu vaccines have been studied carefully and are very safe. Even though some people get sick despite getting a flu shot, the flu shot itself can't give you the flu. Some people report symptoms such as body aches and low-grade fevers after getting a flu shot. This is due to your body’s developing a healthy immune response to the vaccine. These symptoms usually resolve within 24-48 hours. There has been an association between the flu shot and a serious complication called Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), but this is extremely rare - fewer than 1 or 2 people per million who receive the vaccine will develop this syndrome, and the vaccine has been shown over and over to be safe and effective. If you have concerns about the vaccine’s safety, you can read more from the CDC here. Talk to your provider if you’ve had a bad reaction to a vaccine in the past before receiving your next flu shot.
Can the flu shot make me sick?
A common myth that has been hard to shake is the belief that the flu shot can cause the flu. This is not true. You definitely can’t get the flu from a flu shot because there are no active strains of the flu (viral particles) in the shot. You can, however, develop mild flu-like symptoms such as body aches, feeling tired, and a low grade fever, but this isn’t the flu. The flu is much worse! Instead, this is your body creating an immune response to help you fight off any future exposure to the flu, and these symptoms usually go away in a day or two.
Do I still need the flu shot if I never get the flu?
If you never get the flu, that’s great! But the flu shot not only protects your health, but it protects those around you as well. If you are around older, frail people, very young people, like babies, or people with chronic illnesses, the flu shot can help you prevent them from getting it too, as they are at risk to get very sick or even die from the flu.
How is the flu different from COVID-19?
Both the flu and COVID-19 are contagious respiratory illnesses, but are caused by different viruses. COVID-19 is caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, while the flu is caused by various strains of influenza viruses. As both viruses cause many of the same symptoms and are transmitted via close personal contact and through respiratory particles, it can be difficult to distinguish one from the other. Testing can help determine which virus is causing your symptoms. Read more about the similarities and differences between the flu and COVID-19 here.
Is COVID-19 more dangerous than the flu?
Flu and COVID-19 can both cause serious illness and complications that may result in hospitalization and death. As both the flu and COVID-19 can be fatal, we should all do our part to help reduce transmission of both viruses to help protect the most vulnerable and to prevent overwhelming our healthcare system.
Can I have flu and COVID-19 at the same time?
As the flu and COVID-19 are caused by different viruses, it’s possible to have both respiratory illnesses at the same time. Given the possibility of coinfection, it’s especially important to get a flu shot this year to better protect you and your loved ones.
How can I protect myself from the flu and COVID-19?
The best way to protect yourself and others against both flu and COVID-19 is to get vaccinated. Multiple vaccines are produced each year to protect against the flu, and several COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized for emergency use by the FDA. These vaccines not only reduce your risk of getting the flu or COVID-19 and lessen the severity of illness if you do get sick, but they also help prevent both viruses from spreading. Getting vaccinated can also protect those around you, particularly those at increased risk for severe illness.
In addition to vaccination, many of the same health and safety precautions we’ve taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 also help prevent the flu. The CDC recommends the following to reduce your risk of both flu and COVID-19 infection:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going into public or touching common surfaces. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Stay home when you are sick
- Regularly clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
The CDC recommends wearing a well-fitting face mask when you’re sick if you have to be around others, such as to seek medical care. You should also wear a face mask when you’re living with or caring for someone who is sick.
Do I need to get both vaccines or can one protect me against the other?
The flu vaccine doesn’t protect against COVID-19 directly. Likewise, the COVID-19 vaccines do not protect against the flu. The best way to protect yourself from both illnesses is to receive both vaccines. Learn more about COVID-19 vaccines here.
Can I get a flu shot and a COVID-19 vaccine at the same time?
Yes, it is safe to get the COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccines, including the flu shot, in the same visit. This is true, no matter which dose of the COVID-19 vaccine you’re receiving. According to the CDC, “experience with other vaccines has shown that the way our bodies develop protection, known as an immune response, after getting vaccinated and possible side effects of vaccines are generally the same when given alone or with other vaccines.”
What should I do if I have flu or COVID-19 symptoms?
Because it is often difficult to distinguish COVID-19 from the flu, the best way to determine your course of care is to get tested. We recommend that anyone who is experiencing the symptoms above isolate following the guidance here. .
As for flu, several prescription antiviral drugs have been approved by the FDA. Most people with the flu have mild illness and do not need medical care or antiviral drugs. In most cases you should stay home and avoid contact with other people except to get medical care. We recommend staying hydrated and taking a fever-reducing medicine like ibuprofen or acetaminophen (Tylenol) as needed. An antihistamine like Zyrtec or Claritin may help reduce your congestion regardless of whether it’s caused by a virus or allergies. For the seasonal flu, Tamiflu (oseltamivir) may be helpful for individuals at high risk of complications from the flu, but needs to be started soon after symptoms begin. It also causes fairly frequent side effects, so isn’t the best choice for everyone. Rest and hydration are the most important things to remember as you work on getting well.
Should I take an antiviral medication like Tamiflu?
Antiviral medications are not needed for most people, but can be helpful for people who are at high risk of complications of the flu. If taken during the first 48 hours of the illness, antiviral medications such as the oral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or the inhaled drug zanamivir (Relenza) can lessen the severity and shorten the duration of your symptoms. However, if taken longer than 48 hours after the onset of symptoms, they have little effect. Some side effects of these medications include nausea, diarrhea, and headache. As such, for most people we don’t routinely recommend antiviral medication.
Those who are very sick with the flu (like people whose illness is so severe they need to be hospitalized) and those who are at risk of developing serious flu complications (either due to age, pregnancy, or because of a high-risk medical condition) are recommended to take antiviral medication. If you’re unsure if you are recommended to take antiviral medication, or you have additional questions, please contact a member of your care team.
How can I get a flu shot at One Medical?
You can book an appointment in the app by selecting “Book Visit”, providing the reason (“flu shot”) for your visit, and then choosing “Flu Vaccine Appointment”. If there is not an appointment available at your desired time and location, we recommend continuing to check within the app, as new appointments are added as testing slots open up throughout the day.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.
Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. 1Life Healthcare, Inc. and the One Medical entities make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.