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Vaccination Time: Two for You

Joseph Gerald (Jerry) Reves, M.D.
November 05, 2021
A woman sick with the flu, sitting on the couch and blowing her nose.

It’s that time of year again, flu season, and it comes as COVID-19 numbers are dwindling. Still, none of us knows what the outlook for COVID-19 will be as winter approaches and we spend more time indoors.

The seasonal flu and COVID-19 are risky for people over 65 – the audience of this column, Healthy Aging. So, if we want to try to remain healthy, what should we do? The answer is simple: Get vaccinated against influenza and COVID-19.

The North American influenza season runs from fall to early spring and typically peaks in February. We never have a completely accurate forecast for how severe the flu season will be, but experts do try to make predictions.

Some predictions warn of an active flu season because of several factors. First is that last year’s season was unusually mild, attributed generally to COVID-19 precautions such as mask-wearing, social-distancing, good hand-washing, reduced travel and school closures. This year, schools are open.

Last year, before the COVID-19 vaccine was available, many more citizens than usual got the flu vaccine, which is believed to have contributed to the low incidence of influenza last year. Nevertheless, even though last year’s flu season was moderate, 400,000 people were still hospitalized with it.

Another reason why the flu could be worse this year is that so few people had it last year, meaning that the usual immunity that comes from having the virus was not as widely acquired.
Thus, the CDC and others strongly recommend that everyone, especially older Americans, get this year’s flu vaccine.

The vaccine is known to reduce the seriousness of the seasonal flu, and this is why it is recommended each year, particularly for elderly people, who are more vulnerable to severe flu symptoms and even death.

This year, like last year, getting the flu vaccine is particularly important to reduce the number of people requiring medical care in the event of a winter COVID surge that would once again strain healthcare resources and send people to doctors or hospitals, possibly spreading and contracting flu and COVID.

Although the shots can cause mild side effects such as injection site soreness, swelling, redness, fever, chills, headache and body aches, most people have no adverse reaction.

The flu vaccine is safe and somewhat effective depending on the strain of the year and the vaccine of the year. The flu vaccine is recommended for everyone unless someone has a medical reason explained by his or her physician. If you are over 65 or if you have a chronic medical condition such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer etc. getting vaccinated is particularly important.

In a change from previous guidance, the CDC now advises that people can receive the flu and COVID booster vaccines at the same time. This policy should increase the number of people getting both vaccines by reducing the number of visits from two to one.

With booster recommendations for all three available COVID-19 vaccines in the United States, individuals can choose which vaccine they receive as a booster dose. CDC’s recommendations now allow for this type of mix-and-match dosing for booster shots.

The side effects for the boosters are the same as those of the other shots, including redness, soreness or swelling at the injection site and fatigue, headache, joint pain or chills. A higher incidence of lymph node swelling in the axilla exists. Although it is not known how long immunity lasts, what is known is that the vaccine is safe and effective.

The recommendation is to get one shot in each arm or at least one inch apart. Not all flu vaccines are the same, and those known to have more side effects because of something called adjuvant additives should have the shots in separate arms because of the increased chance of side effects.

Getting both shots at the same time is not riskier and does not inhibit the effectiveness.

So don’t wait: Now is the time to get vaccinated for both the flu and the booster, especially if you’re over 65.

It just might be your best shot for staying healthy this winter.

Learn more about fighting the flu with flu shots.