A Madison Physician Tackles Many Questions

Amid all the saturated focus on COVID-19 vaccinations, including the booster doses, health experts are finding many are contemplating skipping annual flu shots.

The reasons vary from pandemic news fatigue to lack of knowledge of how vaccines protect you – and others. 

Dr. Adrienne R. Hampton shares her medical knowledge with UMOJA Magazine in explaining the differences in the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine booster, and why you need both. 

“Immunizations aren’t just personal,” said Hampton, associate professor for the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “Immunizations are really about how you show love and care in your community. Because when you get immunized, you decrease the chances that you’re going to get somebody else sick.

“Sometimes things get lost in the shuffle and we forget that we’re all responsible to each other in fighting pandemics and fighting diseases. It’s not an individual effort, we have to work together,” she added.

Vaccines save millions of lives each year from deadly diseases caused by viruses or bacteria, Hampton said. They’re crucial to fighting infectious diseases — yet there’s still a lot of misinformation floating around about vaccines.

Each day, we encounter thousands of germs. While the immune system can fight most of them on its own, vaccines aid in fighting the disease-causing ones (pathogens) it can’t handle. 

Influenza (flu) cases nosedived to historically low levels during the pandemic last year, primarily due to less face-to-face contact due to shelter-in-place directives, researchers found. Now, with flu season swiftly approaching this season as schools and businesses reopened, medical experts are bracing for a potential “twindemic” in which the spread of the nasty respiratory virus and COVID-19 collide.

Hampton, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommends that everyone be vaccinated against the flu by the end of October. Here are some answers as to why this is vital.

Q: What’s the forecast for the flu this winter?

Dr. Hampton: It’s hard to predict. Flu activity generally peaks between December and February. So, I’ll just make the point that it’s good to get vaccinated before the height of flu season. So, when we say get your flu shot, we can’t promise that you won’t get sick, but we can greatly reduce your risk of getting influenza and having the associated complication that can come from that.

If we learned anything last year, it’s that wearing masks really helps to prevent respiratory viruses.

Q: I already got a COVID-19 vaccine. Do I really need a flu shot, too?

Dr. Hampton: Absolutely. A COVID shot will not prevent you getting influenza and a flu shot will not prevent you getting COVID. If you don’t get either shot, then your chances are higher of getting both.

Q: What if you have received the first Pfizer or Modern vaccines, but not yet received the second one, do you have to wait to get the flu shot after completing the COVID-19 primary vaccine series?

Dr. Hampton: No, you do not have to wait.

Q: The extra doses of coronavirus vaccine are already being administered to immunocompromised people. The timing overlaps with the start of flu season. Would you suggest spreading the shots out?

Dr. Hampton: You can get your flu vaccine and booster shot at the same time. The side effects are not going to compound each other. So, you’re not going to be worse off for getting both in one day versus separating them. We recommend that whenever you can, you just get your flu shot and your COVID shot and if that’s on the same day, perfect.

Some people do experience side effects with both vaccines. Some will feel fatigued, they’ll get headaches, and some might get a low-grade fever. And that’s not evidence that the shot has made you sick. That’s evidence that your immune system is working in responding to the shot in the way that we want. The side effects are generally mild and self-limited … and are much less severe than actually getting either of these diseases.

Q: Are people who have had COVID-19 immune to reinfection? Do they need to receive any shots this flu season?

Dr. Hampton: Absolutely. We see that the COVID shot boosts your immunity. Even if you’ve had COVID, it still confers protection to you and still protects you from getting reinfected. 

You have to wait until you’re out of your quarantine period because certainly you don’t want to go and put the vaccinators at risk. But after your quarantine period, absolutely go out and get both shots.

Q: Are egg products used in COVID-19 vaccines?

Dr. Hampton: If you have an egg allergy that is only hives, you can get the flu shot, no problem. If you have a serious egg allergy, you can get the flu shot in a monitored, medical setting.

The COVID shot has no egg. There’s no part of the COVID shot that it has anything to do with eggs. So, they are not even related.

Q: Can dietary supplements like vitamin C help fight off the flu and/or COVID-19?

Dr. Hampton: Supplements can definitely be part of a healthy lifestyle. And certainly, we want everyone following as healthy lifestyle as they can to keep themselves healthy during cold and flu season. But they’re only part of a healthy lifestyle. Immunizations are a critical piece of a healthy lifestyle. They can protect you from the flu and from COVID working in conjunction with your supplements. But supplements are not a substitute for immunization.

Q: Can your immune system’s defense mechanism weaken from getting vaccines year, after year, after year?

Dr. Hampton: Immunizations teach your body how to defend against diseases. And if you don’t see that flu immunization, every year, your body will forget how to defend against the flu. Until you are faced with the actual flu bug, which you don’t want. So, it’s much better to give your body that gentle reminder of how to defend against the flu, than to get full on sick with the flu because you didn’t get your vaccine and your body forgot.

Q: When viruses mutate, what does it mean for a vaccine?

Dr. Hampton: The flu is distinct in that the flu mutates every single year. And, so, when you get that flu shot, it is tailor made for that specific year of influenza virus. While the shot is not perfect, it’s your best chance of not getting the flu, because it is specific to the streams that are projected to circulate for any given flu season.  

How Flu Spreads

Person to Person

People with flu can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away. Most experts think that flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Less often, a person might get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.

When Flu Spreads

People with flu are most contagious in the first three to four days after their illness begins.  Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. Children and some people with weakened immune systems may pass the virus for longer than 7 days.

Symptoms can begin about 2 days (but can range from 1 to 4 days) after the virus enters the body. That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick. Some people can be infected with a flu virus but have no symptoms. During this time, those people may still spread the virus to others.

Period of Contagiousness

You may be able to pass on flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick.

  • People with flu are most contagious in the first 3-4 days after their illness begins.
  • Some otherwise healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick.
  • Some people, especially young children and people with weakened immune systems, might be able to infect others with flu viruses for an even longer time.

Content source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD)

Dr. Adrienne Hampton earned her B.A. in Biology from Longwood University in Virginia and completed her medical degree at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Before beginning medical school, she completed an AmeriCorps year of service as an HIV counselor and tester in Washington, D.C., where she witnessed firsthand how profoundly social forces shape health outcomes. During medical school, as an Albert Schweitzer Fellow, she implemented prenatal yoga programs in two low-income Chicago communities to combat the stress experienced by so many of the expectant mothers in those areas. These experiences reaffirmed her calling to family medicine, as well as her ultimate goal of creating an inclusive, family-centered practice that will make a positive difference in the health-status of low-income communities.