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Friday, October 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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House Call: Deciphering flu facts from fiction

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 24, 2020

Sisi Ndebele receives a seasonal influenza vaccine from a nurse at a local pharmacy clinic in Johannesburg, South Africa, on April 24.  (Themba Hadebe/Associated Press)
Sisi Ndebele receives a seasonal influenza vaccine from a nurse at a local pharmacy clinic in Johannesburg, South Africa, on April 24. (Themba Hadebe/Associated Press)
By Dr. Bob Riggs For The Spokesman-Review

It seems like talk about vaccines is everywhere these days – and rightly so, as immunizations save lives. It’s estimated that during the 2018-2019 flu season, flu shots helped prevent more than 4 million flu cases and 58,000 hospital visits.

As COVID-19 continues to stretch our community and health care system thin, every hospital bed, flu shot and properly covered cough makes a difference. We should never underestimate anything about our health, and we certainly can’t afford to get cold and flu season wrong this year.

Let’s make sure we’re prepared to get it right and tackle the big flu questions together.

Is it possible to have COVID-19 and the flu at once?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is possible to have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time. We are still learning how common these simultaneous cases are, as well as the short- and long-term health effects, which could take months if not years to fully understand. The good news? We don’t need to wait that long, if at all, to get a flu vaccine.

You don’t just protect yourself when getting a flu shot, one of the many reasons why the CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older get one annually. In addition to protecting you and your community from the flu, it also saves time and resources that can go toward tackling COVID-19.

How can I tell if I have COVID-19, a cold or the flu?

If you’ve had the flu before, your body has developed at least partial immunity and remembers how to deal with the virus. Coronavirus is “novel,” or new, by comparison. Some cases are severe, but in most people, it can range from no symptoms to mild cases like the common cold, making it difficult to tell the difference without getting a test.

Common COVID-19 symptoms to look for include fever, cough and/or shortness of breath and loss of the sense of taste and smell. Less common, but possible, are shaking/chills and body aches or muscle pain. I don’t recommend trying to self-diagnose, particularly if you feel really sick.

Contact your health care provider if you think you might be sick and discuss your testing options. Most health systems have 24-hour nurse lines that you can call to go over your symptoms to decide if you need to be seen or tested.

I work from home and avoid public places – do I still need a flu shot?

The flu virus spreads when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, releasing droplets that can travel up to 6 feet and survive on surfaces for 24-48 hours. As the days get colder and people stay inside, closer proximity to others can increase the risk of catching a virus.

Additionally, the flu virus changes year over year, meaning a new vaccine also is created each year to fight it. Even if you live alone, getting a flu shot protects others as much as it protects you.

You can get your vaccine at medical offices, retail stores, pharmacies or various community locations. Make sure to call ahead and/or visit the location’s website, as many places are requiring appointments this year even at locations offering drive-up vaccines.

Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in The Spokesman-Review.

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