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Column: Can I get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time?

Stanley Martin, MD, Infectious Disease, GMC, director

For months, the world has been battling the COVID-19 pandemic. And soon, we’ll be dealing with flu season on top of COVID-19 in the United States.

With COVID-19 still spreading, many are wondering how this flu season will go. Healthcare professionals are concerned about a spike in flu and COVID-19 cases, and they’re even more concerned about the risk of co-infection (or people getting both at the same time).

Because the flu and COVID-19 are caused by different viruses, it’s possible to get both at the same time. 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.

There’s a good chance that getting infected with one can make you more vulnerable to getting the other. Once you get sick, your body and immune system are weakened.

While more evidence is needed to fully understand the result of having both the flu and COVID-19 at once, there’s one thing we know for sure — taking precautions this flu season is extra important.

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.

Symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 are similar, including fever, cough, fatigue and body aches. Unlike the flu, COVID-19 can cause a loss of taste or smell, but it doesn’t happen in every case.

It’s going to be difficult to distinguish between the two illnesses. The best way to know if you have COVID-19 or the flu is by getting 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.

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

While a vaccine for COVID-19 isn’t available to the public yet, there’s a safe and effective vaccine for the flu. And, like every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get their flu shot to decrease illness, hospitalizations and deaths.

The single best way to protect yourself this flu season is by getting your flu shot. Even if you’re young and healthy, it can protect yourself (and others) from getting the flu and becoming more vulnerable to other illnesses, like COVID-19.

Here are some other steps you can take to avoid the flu (and COVID-19, too):

• 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.

Need your flu shot?

Flu season begins in the fall and ends in the spring, peaking between December and February. The best time to get your flu shot is by the end of October. However, it can still be beneficial to get it at any point during flu season.

Learn all the ways you can get a no-cost flu shot at Geisinger by visiting Geisinger.org/flunews.

Dr. Stanley Martin, system director of infectious diseases at Geisinger

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