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It’s possible. But you can take steps to keep yourself (and those around you) healthy this flu season.

Last year’s flu activity was unusually low. Experts believe everything we did to help slow the spread of COVID-19 — and a record number of flu vaccinations — are largely to thank for that.

But with some preventive measures being relaxed, and COVID cases on the rise, what does that mean for the 2021 flu season? 

The short answer: Healthcare professionals are concerned about a potential spike in flu cases. And with the delta variant, they’re even more concerned about the risk of co-infection. That’s when people — especially those who aren’t vaccinated against either virus — get both at the same time. 

“This is possible because the flu and COVID-19 are caused by different viruses,” explains Dr. Stanley Martin, system director of infectious diseases at Geisinger. “Both can result in serious illness, hospitalizations and even death. And having both at once could increase the chance of more serious outcomes, including pneumonia and respiratory failure.”

While there’s no way to know just how bad this flu season will be, there’s one thing we know for sure — taking precautions is the best way to protect your health.

Flu and COVID-19: What’s the difference?

The flu and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but they’re caused by different viruses. “Both illnesses spread from person to person, mainly through close contact with an infected person and droplets traveling through the air when an infected person talks, coughs or sneezes,” says Dr. Martin.

Symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 are similar, including fever, cough, fatigue and body aches. Unlike the flu, COVID-19 can cause you to lose your senses of taste or smell. But that doesn’t always happen.

“It’s difficult to distinguish between the two illnesses,” says Dr. Martin. “The best way to know if you have COVID-19 or the flu is to get tested.”

The flu and COVID-19 can result in severe illness, especially for older adults, people with underlying medical conditions and pregnant women. However, young children are at a higher risk of severe complications from the flu than they are from COVID-19.

“While rare, some children who become infected with COVID-19 may develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), which can be serious,” adds Dr. Martin.

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

This year, we have safe and effective vaccines for both the flu and COVID-19.

COVID-19 vaccines are available for everyone age 12 or older. And it’s recommended that everyone, even those who’ve already had COVID-19, get vaccinated.

Like every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone age 6 months and older get their flu shot.

Both vaccines are proven to decrease severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths. And yes, those who are eligible need to get both. The COVID-19 vaccine won’t protect you from the flu.

“The single best way to protect yourself this flu season is by getting vaccinated,” says Dr. Martin. “Even if you’re young and healthy, it can protect yourself and others from getting the flu and COVID-19.”

Take these steps, too, to avoid the flu (and COVID-19):

  • Wash your hands often with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds.
  • Use hand sanitizer when handwashing isn’t an option.
  • Continue wearing a face mask in public and following physical distancing guidelines.
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose, and mouth (until you’ve washed your hands).
  • Avoid crowds and close contact with those who are sick.

Can I get the COVID and flu vaccines at the same time?

If you’re 12 or older and haven’t received your COVID vaccine yet, experts recommend getting it as soon as you can. 

The recommendation for getting your flu shot is more specific. “It’s best to get your flu shot before flu season starts,” says Dr. Martin. “Mid-September to October is ideal timing.”

And if you’re immunocompromised and plan to get the third dose to protect against COVID or a COVID booster when they’re available, there’s no need to put off your flu shot. 

“When the COVID vaccines first became available, the CDC recommended they be given two weeks apart from other vaccines,” says Dr. Martin. “That was just a precaution and is no longer the recommendation.”

If you have any questions or concerns about your specific situation, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

Next steps:

Meet Stanley Martin, MD
Learn how to get your flu shot
Schedule a COVID vaccine appointment