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Q&A: Preparing for flu season during the COVID-19 pandemic

This fall will bring unique health challenges as colds and flu start to circulate while the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The best time to get a flu shot is September or October.
The best time to get a flu shot is September or October.Read moreLM Otero / AP

This fall will bring unique health challenges as colds and flu start to circulate while the COVID-19 pandemic continues. It is essential to protect yourself from these viruses to safeguard your health and the health of those around you.

Because viruses weaken the immune system temporarily, catching the flu or a cold can make you more vulnerable to COVID-19. If you contract a cold or flu and the coronavirus at the same time, you could become even more ill. In addition, if both flu and COVID-19 cases spike, the region’s health-care organizations could become overwhelmed.

The best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot. Many patients have asked me whether they should risk going out to get the shot. I tell them it is more important than ever to get the flu vaccine this year. Any risk of catching coronavirus while out getting a flu shot is very low, as providers are taking many precautions to keep their patients and staff safe. For example, my practice is giving flu shots outside. Other providers, such as pharmacies, schedule flu shot appointments to ensure ample time and space between patients. Most providers also screen patients for any exposure to COVID-19 and take their temperature before proceeding with appointments.

The flu shot doesn’t provide 100% immunity, so it is especially vital that as many people as possible get it. As more people are vaccinated, there will be fewer flu cases — reducing the potential for transmission. Even if you still contract the flu after vaccination, you will likely have a milder case.

Most health insurance plans cover the full cost of the flu vaccine, so the shot is usually free to patients with insurance.

In general, everyone age 6 months and older should get an annual flu shot. The best time to get the vaccine is September or October, as the flu is most active from November through March, and the vaccine lasts about six months. The vaccine becomes fully effective about two weeks after it is administered. If you are allergic to eggs, there are flu vaccines available that do not contain egg ingredients.

COVID-19 precautions will also help protect you from colds and flu. These safeguards include staying at least six feet apart from those you do not live with, avoiding large indoor gatherings, wearing a face mask when indoors with anyone you do not live with, wearing a mask outdoors when you cannot remain six feet away from others, and washing your hands or using hand sanitizer frequently.

Symptoms of colds, the flu, and COVID-19 can be similar, including fever, chills and cough. One difference with COVID-19 is that it often — but not always — causes a loss of taste or smell.

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If you become sick, stay home to avoid spreading illness, and contact your health-care provider; your provider will monitor your condition and advise whether you need a coronavirus test or other care.

If you go to your primary-care provider for your flu shot, it is also a good idea to catch up on other vaccines or health needs to avoid additional visits. For example, if you are age 65 or older and have never had a pneumonia vaccine, you can get one when you get your flu shot.

Alexandra DeSimone is a primary-care physician with Virtua Primary Care of Marlton.