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Flu and COVID-19 vaccines: everything you need to know

November 30, 2021 • read

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Flu and COVID-19 vaccines: everything you need to know

Every fall the public service campaigns start up, reminding you that it’s time to get your flu shot. This year there’s an added urgency to the campaign. With COVID-19 still circulating, Canadians could be in for a double whammy — a flu epidemic in the middle of a pandemic.

Many Canadians have questions though — from wondering if it’s safe to get their flu and COVID-19 vaccine together, to how to tell the difference between flu symptoms and COVID-19 symptoms. Here’s everything you need to know about the vaccine, COVID-19, and everything in between.

Will this year be a bad year for the flu?

All that masking, staying home, and social distancing Canadians did last year meant that influenza activity was exceptionally low last winter. By the third week of March 2021, only 66 cases of influenza had been detected. In previous years, you’d be more likely to see around 43,000 by that time of year. While fewer cases is a good thing, it also causes some challenges for this year’s flu season.

Just like COVID-19, the flu virus mutates, and some variants are worse than others. With so few confirmed cases last year, there may be additional strains going around. And, with so few people getting sick last year, there’s less natural immunity in the population so the virus has more opportunities to infect people. Combining these factors with easing COVID-19 public health measures might mean that the flu will come roaring back this winter.

Symptoms of COVID-19 vs. the flu vs. a cold

The virus that causes COVID-19 is different from the ones that cause the flu or the common cold, but it’s not always easy to tell the difference based on symptoms alone. If you have any of the following flu or COVID-19 symptoms, stay home and isolate until you receive a negative COVID-19 test.

Does the flu shot really protect you?

You’ve likely heard about scientists getting the vaccine “wrong” in previous years. That’s because the vaccine given in North America is developed six months ahead of our flu season, based on the strains circulating at that time. Viruses can be unpredictable, however, so by the time the flu season starts here, what’s actually going around may have changed.

Even if the vaccine doesn’t line up with the current virus infecting people, getting it is still worthwhile. Evidence shows that getting it every year has a cumulative effect, helping you to build up immunity to flu viruses in general. It’s still possible to get the flu after being vaccinated, but you’re less likely to have severe symptoms.

Is it safe?

Yes, the vaccine is safe for most people. If you experienced a severe allergic reaction to a previous shot, developed Guillain-Barré syndrome within six weeks of a previous one, or have an anaphylactic allergy to a component of the vaccine (other than eggs), you should speak to your healthcare provider to determine if it’s safe for you. For everyone else over the age of six months, the vaccine is recommended.

The flu shot consists of several strains of the flu, causing you to develop antibodies to fight those viruses. The vaccine contains inactivated — or dead — viruses though, so you can’t get the virus from the flu shot.

Who should and shouldn’t get the vaccine?

Almost everyone six months and older should get a flu shot unless you’re allergic to a component of the vaccine. Flu symptoms can affect anyone, and getting them can be pretty miserable — or worse. In a typical year, the virus causes around 12,200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths in Canada.

Most people who are infected will lose a few days to feeling sick. Certain populations, however, have a higher risk of severe illness and are more likely to be hospitalized and even die. These include young children, pregnant women, adults over the age of 65, and those with chronic health conditions. Because infants less than six months can’t get a flu shot and are at increased risk of severe illness, it’s crucial that their parents and caregivers get the vaccine.

Flu symptoms can be very serious during pregnancy, and both pregnant and breastfeeding women should get their shot. Pregnant women who receive the vaccine can actually boost their children’s immunity for a few months after birth.

Because seniors can get very sick from the virus, a special, high-dose vaccine is recommended for those in the 65+ category. If for whatever reason the high-dose vaccine isn’t available, you should get whichever one is. All of the vaccines work well and it’s more important that you protect yourself rather than wait for a specific vaccine. They also reach full efficacy after about two weeks, so the sooner you get it the better.

Should my child get the flu shot?

As long as they’re over six months, it’s safe for your child to get the vaccine. More than 1,300 children were hospitalized in Canada due to the flu during the winter of 2018/19, and 66% of them were under the age of five. Making sure your child gets the vaccine lessens their chances of getting severe symptoms. It may even save their life.

What are the side effects?

If you do have side effects from the vaccine, they’ll likely be mild. Most are limited to pain, redness, and swelling at the injection site, or symptoms of mild illness like headache, chills, or muscle aches. Children might be a little more irritable than usual.

While it’s possible to experience serious side effects, this is rare. You’re much more likely to have complications from the virus itself than the vaccine.

Can I get a flu shot and a COVID-19 shot at the same time?

Yes. A recent study shows that it’s safe to get both shots at the same time. Beyond being safe, receiving both vaccines at the same appointment doesn’t affect the efficacy of either one.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) has also said that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe to get with any other vaccine. This has prompted some jurisdictions to offer simultaneous jabs for both COVID-19 and the flu at the same appointment. Depending on where you live, you might be able to get both of your vaccines at the same time.

How else can I protect myself from the flu and COVID-19?

Vaccines are the gold standard for protecting yourself from both COVID-19 and the flu, but they’re not 100% effective for everyone. To protect yourself and those you love, you should take additional public health measures. Practice physical distancing, good hand hygiene, and wear a mask indoors in public places.

If you must use high-touch surfaces like elevator buttons or subway poles, don’t touch your face until you’ve had the chance to wash your hands. And most importantly, if you’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, the flu, or even a cold, stay home and get tested.

COVID-19 vs. the flu

COVID-19 and the flu have similarities, but they’re far from the same. Here’s how they differ, and where they overlap.

Source: Centres for Disease Control and Prevention

As of early November, more than 88% of eligible Canadians have at least one COVID-19 jab. Despite all the public outreach regarding vaccinations, however, less than half of Canadians under 65 got their flu shot last year. Dropping temperatures are forcing everyone inside, just as public health restrictions are easing across the country. That combination might mean that 2021/22 stacks up to be one of the worst winters for flu in recent memory. If you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet, there’s no time like the present.

Flu shots are available in pharmacies and doctors’ offices across the country and are free. Winters in this country are hard enough without having to suffer through flu symptoms. Protect yourself and those you love by getting your shot today.

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