Another reason to get a flu shot? Because influenza can look like COVID-19

People might be more susceptible to influenza this fall and winter because COVID-related precautions last season led to a relatively mild flu season — and a local doctor said that makes getting a flu shot all the more important.

“Every time you get exposed to a respiratory virus, you build immunity that protects you against future exposures. That’s the same for COVID as it is for influenza,” said Johns Hopkins pediatric infectious disease expert Dr. Aaron Milstone.



“But [people] weren’t exposed last year and they didn’t re-prime their immune system to protect them during future years,” he said.

Previous influenza exposure may not prevent you from getting the flu, but it can help protect you from severe illness.

Exposure to the flu this season also may be more likely compared to last season because people are backing off pandemic-related precautions. Milstone said people now are more inclined to take their masks off, eat indoors, go to large family gatherings — all of which increase the chances of catching and spreading influenza.

The ninth-leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2019 was influenza and pneumonia, with a death rate of 15.2 per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This coming season, influenza will continue to disrupt people’s lives. If you get sick, influenza symptoms are very similar to COVID symptoms,” Milstone said. “So sickness this winter means: COVID test. If we can prevent sickness through the influenza vaccine, we can prevent people from having to get tested, miss school and miss work.”

COVID is unique because it can cause a loss of taste and smell. However, both influenza and COVID-19 can cause fever, body aches, chills, cough, diarrhea and runny nose.

“So just because you have a respiratory virus symptom, you shouldn’t think it’s one or the other. You should seek testing and advice from a medical professional,” Milstone said.

Doctors were also concerned about the current climate of vaccine hesitancy related to the COVID-19 vaccine, how they might translate to other vaccines and decline in desires to get the influenza shot. But Milstone emphasized that the vaccine is effective, important and necessary.

“The influenza vaccine is terrific at preventing hospitalizations and deaths from influenza, just like the COVID vaccine prevents hospitalizations and deaths from COVID,” he said. “So it’s really important that people get the flu vaccine this year to prevent illness and disease.”

There’s no problem with getting flu and COVID-19 shots of any kind at the same time.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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