Prevent Flu and Get a Flu Vaccine: What You Need to Know

(updated on 10/5/20) Getting a flu vaccine during 2020-2021 is more important than ever because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Flu vaccination is especially important for people who are at high risk for getting the flu, many of whom are also at high risk for COVID-19.
illustration of a bandage and viruses.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What is the flu?
Flu is an illness that you can catch easily from others. The flu is caused by a set of viruses. The viruses infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. Flu can cause mild to severe illness. At times, it can lead to death. The best way to prevent flu is to get a flu vaccine each year.

How is the flu different from COVID-19?
Influenza (flu) and COVID-19 are both respiratory illnesses. You can catch both easily from others. But, they are caused by different viruses. It is likely that the flu and COVID-19 will both spread this fall and winter. The flu and COVID-19 are very similar. But there are currently vaccines to prevent the flu. There are no vaccines currently to prevent COVID-19.

How does the flu spread?
The virus spreads from one person to others through:

  • The air when someone with the flu coughs or sneezes.
  • Tiny wet drops that spray out when a person who has flu coughs, sneezes or talks. They can land in the mouths or noses of people who are near you. Or they can go into someone’s lungs when a person breathes in.
  • Touching something, like an object or surface, with the virus on it. Then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes before you wash your hands.

**You can have the flu and not have any symptoms. So, people could spread the flu to others and not even know it. The flu is spread the same way COVID-19 is spread. To help prevent the spread of flu and COVID-19, we all need to: Wear a face covering. Continuously wash your hands. Stay at least 6 feet away from others.

What are the symptoms of the flu?
Flu can cause mild to severe illness. At times, it can lead to death. Flu is different from a cold. Flu normally comes on suddenly. People who have flu feel some or all of these symptoms:

  • fever* or feeling chills
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • muscle or body aches
  • headaches
  • tiredness
  • some people may have vomiting and diarrhea. This is more common in kids than adults.

*Not everyone with flu will have a fever. With the flu, you could spread the flu before you have any symptoms. It takes about 2 days after you are exposed to the flu to get symptoms. People with flu are most contagious in the first 3-4 days after their illness begins.

Who is most likely to be infected with the flu?
Children are more likely to get sick from the flu. But everyone is at risk in getting the flu.

Who is at higher risk for getting the flu?
Anyone can get flu (even healthy people). Serious problems related to flu can happen at any age. Some people are at higher risk. They can get serious flu-related complications if they get sick. If you are at high risk for flu complications, you are at a high risk for COVID-19. People with disabilities may be at risk of getting flu and/or flu symptoms because they:

  • May have limited mobility. Can’t avoid risk. May be near others who are infected, like caretakers and family members.
  • May not understand how to prevent the flu. May not practice ways to prevent the flu. Like handwashing, or avoiding contact with people who are sick.
  • May not be able to tell someone if they are sick.
  • May not realize they have symptoms.

You are at higher risk if:

  • You have an intellectual disability, or a moderate to severe developmental disorder.
  • You are a child younger than 5 years old.
  • You are 65 years or older.
  • You are pregnant.
  • You live in a group home.
  • You live in a long-term care residence.
  • You have chronic health conditions including:
o Asthma
o Blood disorders
o Lung, heart, kidney or liver disease
o Severe obesity
o Compromised immune system
o Endocrine disorders (like diabetes)
o Brain and spinal cord disorders (like cerebral palsy, epilepsy, stroke)

What is the flu vaccine?
Flu vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body. These develop about two weeks after vaccination. These antibodies provide protection. They protect against infection.

Does the flu vaccine protect against getting the flu?
A flu vaccine can help you from getting sick from the flu. Flu vaccines protect against the three or four different flu viruses that cause the flu each year. Research shows flu vaccines can help protect against getting the flu. There is still a chance you could get the flu even with a vaccine. But if you get the flu vaccine and then you still get the flu, it will generally be a milder case.

Is it better to get sick with flu than to get a flu vaccine?
No. Flu can be a serious disease. Especially among:

  • Young children
  • Older adults
  • People with certain chronic health conditions, like asthma, heart disease or diabetes.

Any flu infection can carry a risk of serious complications. Or hospitalization or death. Even among healthy children and adults. Therefore, getting the flu vaccine is a safer choice. Safer than risking illness.

What about people who get a flu vaccine and still get sick with flu symptoms?
There are many reasons why someone might get flu symptoms. They may have symptoms even after they have received a vaccine:

  • Some people can become ill from other viruses.
  • You can be exposed to the flu before getting a vaccine. Or exposed to flu viruses during the two-week period after the vaccine. During this time, the body is developing immune protection.
  • You may be exposed to a different flu virus. A flu vaccine may not work against a different virus.
  • Flu vaccines vary in how they work. Some people who get a vaccine still get sick.

Why should I get the flu vaccine this year?
This fall and winter, getting a flu vaccine will be more important than ever. Hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices will be busy caring for COVID-19 patients. Flu vaccines can help save scarce medical resources. These resources are needed to care for COVID-19 patients while protecting people with disabilities. Many people with ID have specific chronic conditions that make getting the flu more serious. They are at increased risk of respiratory disease, of pneumonia, and death from the flu. Getting a flu vaccine is that first step in protecting themselves from respiratory illnesses. Getting vaccinated yourself may also protect people around you. Including those who are more vulnerable to serious flu illness:

  • Babies and young children
  • Older people
  • People with certain chronic health conditions
  • Caregivers of people who are at higher risk of getting the flu

Who should be vaccinated for the flu during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu vaccine every season. The CDC is preparing for COVID-19 and seasonal flu to spread at the same time. Caregivers and residents in long-term care facilities should also be sure to get their flu vaccine.

Will the flu vaccine protect against exposure to COVID-19?
Getting a flu vaccine will not prevent COVID-19. But, getting a flu vaccine is very important, especially for those with ID. It is possible that the flu and the virus that causes COVID-19 will spread at the same time. It is also possible that people may get flu and COVID-19 at the same time if both viruses are circulating. Flu vaccines have been shown to reduce the risk of flu illness, hospitalization and death.

Is there a test that can detect both flu and COVID-19?
Yes. The CDC has developed a test that will check for A and B type seasonal flu viruses and SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

When is the flu season in the United States?
While flu viruses are detected year-round in the United States, flu viruses are most common during the fall and winter. Flu activity often begins to increase in October. Most of the time flu activity is highest between December and February. Although, activity can last as late as May.

When is the best time to get the flu vaccine?
You should get a flu vaccine before flu viruses begin spreading in your community. It takes about two weeks after you get a vaccine for your body to help protect you against the flu. Make plans to get vaccinated early in the fall. You want to get a vaccine before flu season begins. CDC recommends that people get a flu vaccine by the end of October.

Could the flu vaccine lower your immune system and make you more vulnerable to exposure to COVID-19?
There is no evidence that getting a flu vaccine increases your risk of exposure to COVID-19.

How can I safely get a flu vaccine during the COVID-19 pandemic?
When going to get a flu vaccine, practice everyday preventive actions and follow CDC recommendations for running essential errands. Ask your doctor, pharmacist, or health department if they are following CDC’s vaccination pandemic guidance. Any vaccination location following CDC’s guidance should be a safe place for you to get a flu vaccine.

Where can I get the flu vaccine?
If you do not have a doctor that you regularly see, flu vaccines are also available at health departments and drug stores. You can use VaccineFinder to find where flu vaccines are available near you.

What is the difference between the flu and COVID-19?
Flu and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. COVID-19 is caused by infection with a new coronavirus (called SARS-CoV-2) and flu is caused by infection with flu viruses. Because some of the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar, it may be hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. Testing may be needed to help confirm a diagnosis. Flu and COVID-19 share many characteristics, but there are some key differences between the two.

Similarities

Both COVID-19 and flu can have signs and symptoms, ranging from no symptoms to severe symptoms. Common symptoms that COVID-19 and flu share include:
  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Headache
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea. This is more common in children than adults

Differences

Flu
Flu viruses can cause mild to severe illness, including common signs and symptoms listed above.

COVID-19
Other signs and symptoms of COVID-19, different from flu, may include change in or loss of taste or smell.

What are severe complications from the flu?
Anyone can get the flu (even healthy people) and serious problems related to flu can happen at any age, but some people are at high risk of developing serious flu-related complications if they get sick. Flu-related complications include:

  • Sepsis
  • Pneumonia
  • Myocarditis (swelling of the heart)
  • Encephalitis (swelling of the brain)
  • Myositis or rhabdomyolysis (swelling of the muscle tissues)
  • Multi-organ failure (ex. respiratory and kidney failure)
  • Make current chronic medical problems worse (ex. People with asthma may experience severe asthma attacks when having the flu)

What should I do if I get sick with the flu?
If you get sick with flu symptoms, in most cases, you should stay home. You should also avoid contact with other people except to get medical care. Since you are in a higher risk group for complications from the flu, contact your healthcare provider as soon as you suspect that you may have the flu.

If you experience any of the below emergency warning signs of the flu, go to the emergency room:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Persistent dizziness or confusion
  • Seizures
  • Not urinating
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Severe weakness or unsteadiness
  • Fever or cough that improve but then return or worsen
  • Worsening of chronic medical conditions

How long should I stay home if I’m sick from the flu?
CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or other needs. Your fever should be gone without the need to use a fever-reducing medicine, such as Tylenol®. Until then, you should stay home from work, school, travel, shopping, social events, and public gatherings.

What should I do if I get the flu?
Stay away from others as much as possible to keep from infecting them. If you must leave home, for example to get medical care, wear a facemask. Also cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue. Wash your hands often to keep from spreading flu to others.

How can I help protect myself from getting the flu?

  • Avoid close contact/practice social distancing. This means stay six feet (or about two meters) away from others. Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others. You need to protect them from getting sick too.
  • Stay home when you are sick. If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick.
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue. Then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces. Use a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others
o Everyone should wear a cloth face cover when they have to go out in public. For example, to the grocery store or to pick up other necessities.
  • Practice other good health habits. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

Are there any drugs that can fight the flu?
CDC recommends that people at higher risk of serious flu complications should be treated with flu antiviral drugs if they get sick with flu. Antiviral drugs can make you feel better faster. They may also prevent serious complications from the flu. Antiviral drugs are prescription medicines. These prescription medicines work best taken within 48 hours after being diagnosed with the flu. Contact your health care provider if you suspect you have the flu.

Should I wear a face covering/mask when I get a flu shot?

  • Yes. You should wear a face covering whenever you are out in public. Just like with COVID-19, face coverings can help prevent the spread of the flu to others. If you have the flu and you do not yet have symptoms, you could still spread it to others. Wearing a face covering can reduce that spread.
  • If you show symptoms of the flu, wear a face covering. Wearing this will help prevent the spread of the disease to others.

What is Special Olympics doing to prevent the spread of flu among its athletes, coaches, caregivers and staff?
COVID-19 is spread the same way that the flu is spread. So this year, Special Olympics is sharing flu education materials. These materials have been provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Special Olympics is focused on helping athletes practice prevention from possible exposure to both the flu and COVID-19. Special Olympics encourages everyone to follow CDC recommendations to get a flu vaccine. The organization has adapted existing flu education materials from the CDC. These materials include printable posters, key messages and social media graphics. All of these materials can be found here.