Editor’s note: This article was updated on Sept. 27, 2021. COVID-19 information and recommendations are subject to change. For the most up-to-date information, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website or view our most recent COVID-19 blog posts.
With COVID-19 and influenza, standard health safety precautions are necessary to prevent the spread. These include hand hygiene, social distancing, masking or covering your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, and staying home when you feel sick.
“Influenza vaccination, in addition to a COVID-19 vaccine, is especially important this season because we can prevent many hospitalizations from influenza and COVID-19 cases,” said Dr. Edward Belongia, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Marshfield Clinic Research Institute.
The flu vaccine will reduce your risk of developing influenza by about 50%, and Belongia said this year, the vaccine will have three new strains.
The COVID-19 vaccines are available to everyone 12 years and older. Each brand is effective at preventing COVID-19, including highly effective for preventing serious illness caused by variants. Emergency authorization for use has been granted to three vaccines – Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Janssen (Johnson & Johnson). Comirnaty, from Pfizer-BioNTech, has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for individuals 16 years and older.
Get your flu shot with your COVID-19 vaccine
The Health System offers a flu vaccine throughout the season, starting no later than October and as long as the virus is circulating (often into spring). Visit marshfieldclinic.org/flu for information and appointment options.
It’s important to get your flu vaccine as soon as possible because it can take up to two weeks for the antibodies that protect against influenza to develop in the body. If you have not yet received your COVID-19 vaccine, you can plan to schedule it on the same day as your flu shot.
Vaccine appointments are preferred, but Health System locations also offer vaccination clinics periodically throughout the season to make it convenient for patients and community members to get their flu and COVID-19 vaccines. Visit marshfieldclinic.org/vaccinecalendar for information on flu or COVID-19 vaccine clinics near you.
Severity of COVID-19 and influenza
COVID-19 and influenza are very different, but both can cause severe illness or death. Older adults and people with underlying chronic diseases have the highest risk of COVID-19 hospitalization, but life-threatening illness also occurs in young, healthy individuals. COVID-19 infections are generally milder in children than adults, but COVID-19 hospitalization rates in children increased dramatically in recent months. Influenza hospitalization rates are highest in older adults and infants.
“Some people think children don’t get infected with COVID-19 or spread the virus,” Belongia said. “This is not true. Children can become infected and spread the virus to family members and classmates. Most children with COVID-19 have mild or moderate illness, but pediatric hospitalizations have increased due to the delta variant.”
Similar to how influenza virus strains change seasonally, the COVID-19 virus continues to naturally mutate into different strains of COVID-19. The delta variant is more contagious and causes more severe illness compared to earlier strains of the virus. The COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective against severe illness caused by the delta variant. Fully vaccinated people with breakthrough infections from this variant appear to be infectious for a shorter period, reducing the risk of spreading the virus to other people.
Most people infected with COVID-19 or influenza will recover at home. However, some people will require a ventilator because the virus had caused severe damage to the lungs. Many people who are put on a ventilator will eventually die. These deaths can be prevented by vaccination. Nearly all cases of severe COVID-19 have occurred in unvaccinated people, and risk of COVID-19 hospitalization is 17 times higher in unvaccinated individuals than those fully vaccinated.
“Both infections can cause serious illness or death, but the risk of death is much higher for COVID-19 than influenza, especially in older adults,” Belongia said. “Influenza is mainly respiratory but serious COVID-19 infections often cause damage to multiple organs, including brain, heart and kidneys.”
Patients hospitalized with COVID-19 have an increased risk for heart attack, stroke, blood clots and kidney failure. Children can develop a rare but serious complication called ‘multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children’ (MIS-C).
Treatment for COVID-19 and influenza
If you do test positive for COVID-19 or influenza, follow recommendations from your provider or public health. For most mild illnesses, you should stay home, drink lots of fluids and rest until your body recovers.
If you have been diagnosed with influenza, you may be prescribed influenza antiviral drugs, especially if you are considered high risk.
If you have COVID-19, we offer monoclonal antibody therapy for patients with mild to moderate symptoms. This can protect people from severe illness or death in the coming days and weeks. Talk to your provider or care team about what treatment is best for you.
CDC recommendations for isolation and quarantine after COVID-19 infection depends on vaccination status.
It may be helpful to track your symptoms for 14 days to let your provider know if you see any changes or have emergency warning signs. Over-the-counter medications may help with some of the symptoms like fever or cough. Talk to your provider about your options.