This year’s impending flu season will be like no other given the overlap with the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. Late September marks the start of Fall, and October means lower temperatures and seasonal influenza. It’s also time – especially for those living with cancer, and their families and caregivers – to get an annual flu shot. Yes, even during a global pandemic, flu shots are strongly recommended.
We’re already coping with one contagious respiratory virus. How are we supposed to prepare for another widespread infection? While it’s still unclear how COVID-19 will impact the severity of flu season, we do know that cancer patients and those 65 years and older are at higher risk for flu complications, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Because of the current pandemic, we’re already taking many of the preventative steps helpful for fending off the seasonal flu, such as washing hands more often, disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, and wearing face coverings in public. But there can be significant risks if the viruses overlap and infections begin to overwhelm healthcare systems, deplete testing supplies, and harm those with compromised immune systems, including cancer patients. That’s why everyone should practice extra caution this year, taking the necessary steps to slow COVID-19 and stop the flu in its tracks.
Get your flu shot.
Yes – especially during COVID-19. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends everyone 6 months of age or older should be vaccinated for the flu every season. This is crucial for cancer patients, their caregivers, and families. The flu shot is proven to be safe and effective for people with cancer, and healthcare providers have been issued guidance that ensures the safety of administering the flu vaccine during COVID-19.
Wear a mask.
In the same way that masks protect you, and those near you, from spreading and contracting COVID-19, masks can help control the spread of the flu through mucus and respiratory droplets. Cancer patients, and those they interact with, should be mindful of public mask policies, especially in public places where social distancing is difficult to maintain and during in-person visits to receive care.
As the holidays approach, it’s hard to avoid spending time with loved ones, but continuing to practice safe social distancing will help slow the spread of the flu and COVID-19, while minimizing additional strain on hospitals amid flu season. It’s important for cancer patients and their loved ones to know the risks and discuss any questions with your doctor.
Stay home if you’re sick.
In the era of COVID-19, flu-like symptoms can be a sign of a serious infection that is not the flu. Symptoms shared between COVID-19 and the flu include, but are not limited to:
• Sore throat
• Runny or stuffy nose
• Fever or chills
• Body aches
If you have any of these symptoms, stay home. Make a plan with your family or a caregiver for medical supplies or other necessities. It’s important for people with cancer to call their doctor immediately if they get a fever.
It’s understandable to experience anxiety about the impending flu season and COVID-19. Talk to your doctor about concerns related to your risk for infection. Don’t wait until flu season hits close to home. Get your flu shot and continue being vigilant to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the flu.
Ashwani Agarwal, M.D., is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–Corsicana, 301 Hospital Drive in Corsicana, Texas. For more information, visit TexasOncology.com.