Peter Saunders has been getting the flu shot every year since he was a young adult on the advice of his doctor. “I have asthma and allergies and something that can trigger both of them is a case of the flu,” says the 48-year-old father of two.
Saunders and his wife, Angelique, have a daughter in senior kindergarten and another in daycare. “You consider all the [germs] that are easy for them to bring home and you don’t want the flu to happen on top of that.”
The family, who moved to Georgetown, Ont., a year ago, is already planning to get flu shots this fall as well as the adult and pediatric COVID-19 boosters.
That’s a good plan, says family physician Dr. Vivien Brown, assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto and board member of Immunize Canada, a government-funded group that promotes the understanding and use of vaccines.
“We’re expecting a bad season,” says Dr. Brown, noting that Australia just went through a very difficult flu season, which is a predictor for what will happen here. “We’ve also stopped doing those [COVID-related] public health measures, like masks, that we were doing a year ago.”
And while some people might be experiencing vaccine fatigue as they book yet another COVID-19 booster and ponder getting the flu shot, it’s still an important way to protect your health and the health of others.
Dangers of the flu
Incidence rates of the flu have been low over the past two years of the pandemic as many people stayed indoors and masked up when they went out. But during an average winter, there are about 12,200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths from the flu in Canada.
The flu can make other health conditions worse. “It destabilizes a chronic illness that you might be doing okay with,” says Dr. Brown.
That’s a problem, since 65 per cent of adults recorded in a Canadian primary care database have at least one chronic condition and 37 per cent have two or more. And, for adults over 40, you’re 10 times more likely to have a heart attack in the seven days after contracting the flu.
She notes that 15 per cent of older people experience catastrophic disability after being hospitalized for the flu – they’re often no longer able to live independently afterwards.
The flu impacts families and workplaces, too. “[My kids] couldn’t go to school or daycare if they had anything at all,” says Saunders, adding that the couple had to take many days off work in recent years.
Another COVID-19 winter?
Dr. Brown says we don’t know what’s going to happen with COVID-19 in the coming months. “We’ve had a great summer, the weather’s been good and people have been meeting outside and COVID numbers are down,” she says, “but we know that’s going to change with the weather changing and everyone moving indoors.”
Having the flu surge alongside COVID cases could further impact the already overtaxed health care system and anyone who gets both illnesses at the same time or in quick succession could become very sick.
The safety of vaccines
Flu vaccines are generally safe, but some individuals may have mild side effects for a few days, such as a slight fever, headache or muscle ache. “Some people don’t feel well for a day or two because their immune system is being stimulated,” says Dr. Brown, who notes you cannot get the flu from a flu vaccine.
When you get a flu shot, it doesn’t guarantee you won’t get the flu, but it decreases the severity and the chance of hospitalization.— Dr. Vivien Brown, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Medicine at University of Toronto
According to the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), it’s now considered safe to get a COVID-19 vaccine at the same time as the flu shot. “When the COVID shots first came out, we said to take it by itself and to wait a couple of weeks,” says Dr. Brown. “That was just an abundance of caution.”
In fact, Dr. Brown has many patients visit her these days who get numerous vaccines at once. “It’s a good time to update all your routine immunizations; it’s something I encourage everyone to do,” she says. Many people have fallen behind on their regular boosters – worldwide, UNICEF estimates 25 million children have missed important routine shots.
Receiving a flu shot may make the difference between having serious symptoms from the flu and having a mild case.
“When you get a flu shot, it doesn’t guarantee you won’t get the flu, but it decreases the severity and the chance of hospitalization,” says Dr. Brown.
Going for a flu vaccine at the pharmacy or your doctor’s office is quick and easy – but having a serious case of the flu is anything but.
The opinions expressed are those of Dr. Brown and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sanofi.
Please note: The opinions expressed are those of Dr. Brown and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sanofi.
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Sanofi. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.