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Q&A: How flu season and COVID-19 pandemic will mix

It’s being called the “twindemic,” the name for the upcoming flu season while in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic

Here are some questions we got answered from doctors about what would happen if both viruses hit our community hard this year:

Will it really be that bad since people are already staying home more?

It certainly looks like there’s a possibility for a mild season when you examine the southern hemisphere of the globe since they experience their flu season before us, according to pediatrician Dr. Victoria Regan, with Memorial Hermann.

The best-case scenario is if social distancing is strictly enforced this year, both viruses may not have the grips in society that we worry about, especially with more schools enforcing masks and hand-washing, it could be a mild flu season after all.

Can you get both viruses at once?

It’s not even a question, according to Dr. Peter Bigler with St. Luke’s Medical Group. Bigler said you definitely can get both viruses at the same time.

“I have a significant concern. Unfortunately, we have this pandemic going on which has put a burden not only on healthcare but society as a whole. When you add what is a typical flu season you get concerned about overwhelming the medical system,” Dr. Bigler said.

What happens if you get both?

Bigler says that would cause significant respiratory distress in any patient but particularly that puts the chronically ill and the older population at even higher risk during this pandemic.

If kids do well with COVID, is flu season any different for them this year?

Dr. Regan said some kids can have severe/deadly reactions to both viruses and with many kids returning to school, it will be a concern for them and their caregivers.

“We worry about infectivity and who they’re coming around and who could they could expose that could have a more serious infection,” Dr. Regan said.

How do I know if I have the flu or COVID-19 when the symptoms are very similar?

Standard flu symptoms include fever, muscle aches, coughing, shortness of breath and fatigue. The overlap is significant, but there are some isolated symptoms that are unique to COVID-19: the loss of taste or smell.

“There is significant overlap in clinical symptoms between influenza and COVID-19, making it difficult to differentiate the two diseases based on symptoms alone. Epidemiologic information, such as being in contact with someone who had the flu or COVID can help to aid in diagnostic accuracy,” said infectious disease specialist Dr. Jill Weatherhead, from Baylor College of Medicine.

How can you protect your family?

Get a flu shot.

Make sure to time the vaccine just right in order to have protection the entire flu season. Which means, late this month or October will be the perfect window to get one that can provide protection through May.

“It takes about two weeks for immunity to develop after the vaccine,” according to Dr. Bigler.

“The CDC recommends that children try to be immunized by the end of October,” Dr. Regan said.

What age can children start getting the flu vaccine?

Children can start getting the flu vaccine at six months of age, which is highly recommended because young children are at very high risk for flu complications.

“Children with COVID-19 can become ill, but compared to adults, the chance of them having complications is much lower,” Dr. Weatherhead said. “In comparison, children under 5 and particularly those younger than 2-years-old are at high risk of having influenza complications.”

Getting children vaccinated early and making sure individuals around the child are vaccinated is crucial.

Many kids are behind on all vaccines this year because parents fear taking them to the doctor. Are doctors worried parents won’t get the flu shot too?

That’s a concern every year. Dr. Regan said 50% of kids who die from flu complications didn’t get a flu shot and those deaths could be prevented.

If you’re behind on several vaccines right now, the good news is, the flu shot is safe to give in combination with those other routine shots, according to Bigler.

Which flu vaccine should adults get?

Individuals above the age of 65 should receive a high-dose vaccine. Anyone under 65 should take what is available, which is the trivalent or quadrivalent vaccine that will have different vaccine strains within it.

Trivalent vaccine: contains influenza A strains (H1N1 and H3N2), as well as an influenza B strain.

Quadrivalent vaccine: contains the same components, as well as an additional influenza B strain.

Can the flu vaccine combat COVID-19?

According to Baylor College of Medicine, the flu vaccine will not prevent you from getting COVID-19, but it will prevent you from getting severely ill from influenza, and hopefully reduce the risk of requiring hospitalization. You can still get the flu if you have the vaccine, but it could be preventative and reduce symptoms and complications.

“If we can prevent flu disease by increasing community flu vaccination rates, then it would reduce flu infections, flu-related severe disease and flu-related deaths within the community and subsequently reduce the burden on our healthcare system while still trying to control COVID-19 within the community,” Weatherhead said.

If I get the flu, am I more at-risk for COVID-19, and vice versa?

You are not necessarily more at-risk in terms of getting infected, according to Baylor College of Medicine, although any time you have a weakened immune system from any sort of other infectious pathogens, you could be at risk for additional infection.

“There is a lot more to learn about co-infection, your immune response when you have an infection and whether it makes you at risk for the other, or if damage from one puts you at risk for a more severe disease from the other,” Weatherhead said.