Though the likelihood of developing both COVID-19 and the flu at the same time is currently low, it’s possible, and some people may be at greater risk than others. Adene Sanchez/Getty Images
- “Flurona” is a term that’s been coined to describe when a person has both the flu and COVID-19 at the same.
- While it’s not clear how sick having both viruses could make people, medical experts say at-risk populations should take measures to protect themselves against both the flu and COVID-19.
- Getting the flu shot and COVID-19 vaccines are the best way to reduce your risk of severe complications from both viruses.
This month, a pregnant woman in Israel was diagnosed with both influenza and COVID-19, making hers the first documented case of what’s being called “flurona.”
Last year, experts worried about the possibility of people developing both COVID-19 and influenza at the same time, but they’re even more concerned this year.
“Last year, there wasn’t very much influenza at all, so there wasn’t much opportunity last year to learn about these simultaneous infections,” Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, told Healthline.
Current Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention (CDC) data indicates that the country is on track for an influenza season of at least average severity. This severity can be “substantial” on its own, says Schaffner, but could be detrimental when combined with COVID-19.
With more businesses opening up, less physical distancing, and more children attending in-person school, the flu virus can now circulate more easily.
Schaffner says that children are the greatest spreaders of influenza because when children contract the flu virus, they produce more virus than adults do and shed the virus for longer periods of time.
“They are back in school, so it will be spread there and then they bring it home and give it to their parents, Aunt Susie, grandparents, neighbors,” he said.
With COVID-19 cases high, the entire healthcare system is under stress, and if flu takes off, it could put an even greater stress on the healthcare system.
“When we have a big flu season all by itself, absent COVID, you can fill hospitals with flu patients, so you can imagine if we even have a middling influenza season during the pandemic, that could really stress hospitals and outpatient settings,” said Schaffner.
Dr. Laura Boyd, a primary care physician at Elmhurst-Edward Health Center in Addison, Illinois, said her health system is bogged down with COVID-19, and a surge of the flu will tax it further.
“We are already short-staffed due to illness within our own staff, and our call loads have doubled along with the need for office visits,” Boyd told Healthline.
Should you be concerned about flurona?
Scientists know that it’s possible to get two infections at the same time. Boyd explains that when the immune system is weakened from one infection, it allows easy access for another infection.
“We have seen a lot of coinfections of COVID-19 and strep throat lately,” she said.
While scientists know it’s possible to develop COVID-19 and influenza at the same time, it’s too early to determine exactly how sick flurona could make people.
“We don’t know if getting both the flu and COVID will make you really sick, but I’d worry if I was predisposed to pneumonia, or if I were more likely to be hospitalized because I have the two infections,” said Schaffner.
However, he points out that both influenza and COVID-19 strike the same groups most seriously, including older people, those with obesity, compromised immune systems, and underlying conditions, such as diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, and more.
Because COVID-19 is rampant across the United States, looking into how much influenza is in your community can help determine your risk for flurona.
“Although in general, flu is picking up now across the country, it hits areas at different times, so we would expect to see some more reports about [flurona] as influenza spreads across the country,” said Schaffner.
Vaccination provides protection
While uncertainty surrounds flurona, Schaffner says that wearing masks and physical distancing can help decrease the spread of both viruses. However, he emphasizes that your best defense is getting vaccinated for both influenza and COVID-19.
“As I’ve been out promoting the flu shot, there is a general finding of people forgetting about flu because they’re so concentrated on COVID, and there is also real vaccine fatigue, which is understandable,” he explained.
Because the coronavirus and the flu are different viruses and aren’t related in any way, it’s important to get vaccinated against both for protection against both. One doesn’t protect against the other.
While you can still get COVID-19 and the flu if you’re vaccinated for both, Boyd says that the flu and COVID vaccines will significantly decrease your likelihood of having severe symptoms.
“It’s still the unvaccinated who are having the most reactions and ending up in the hospital versus the vaccinated. Vaccinated people have significantly mild symptoms compared to those who are not vaccinated. That will be the same with the flu,” she said.
The CDC states that it’s safe to get both vaccines at the same time.
“After you get the two vaccines, you are likely to have two sore arms, but it doesn’t appear that you’re going to get more headache, fever, body aches — all which occur more frequently with the COVID vaccine than flu,” said Schaffner.