Last winter, the United States experienced a “tripledemic” of these three airborne respiratory viruses, resulting in a spike in hospitalizations and deaths among both children and adults. And this year, some doctors fear a similar triple-whammy surge. But taking action now is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones.
“We are two weeks [away] from Thanksgiving, and now is the right time for everyone to protect themselves,” says Mandy Cohen, MD, director of the CDC. “Every winter season, we see more viruses circulating, and unfortunately, these viruses make people very sick, [and they can] end up in the hospital, and sadly, even die.”
“We are two weeks [away] from Thanksgiving, and now is the right time for everyone to protect themselves.” —Mandy Cohen, MD, director of the CDC
We may be nearly four years away from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Dr. Cohen says that the virus remains highly prevalent, and given what we know now about the potential for contracting long COVID and experiencing lingering health consequences from infection, it's still important to take all the precautions you can to avoid the virus.
- Mandy Cohen, MD, MPH, director for the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
That means getting vaccinated for COVID-19 as well as the flu, and for those eligible, RSV, as soon as possible (and especially before doing any Thanksgiving or holiday travel). Below, you'll find everything you need to know about eligibility for the COVID-19, flu, and RSV vaccines, how to get them, potential side effects, and other tips from the CDC for staying healthy.
Who should get the COVID-19 and flu vaccines?
The CDC recommends that everyone older than six months get this year's flu vaccine and everyone five years and older get one dose of the updated COVID-19 vaccine (even if you had previous COVID-19 shots, assuming they were before September 12, 2023). Any of the current options on the market for the COVID-19 vaccine—Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, or Novavax—will satisfy this requirement.
One exception to this rule is if you had COVID-19 recently; the CDC suggests delaying your updated vaccine by three months from the date when you tested positive, given reinfection is unlikely in the few weeks immediately following infection.
Children who are between six months and four years of age may need additional doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to get up to date, and anyone who is either moderately or severely immunocompromised may also need extra doses of the updated vaccine, so if that's you, it's important to check in with your doctor.
Who should get the RSV vaccine?
According to the CDC, adults over 60 years old and people who are 32 to 36 weeks pregnant should get the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) vaccine. (To be clear, those who do not fall in these particular groups are not eligible for the RSV vaccine and should not get it.) RSV is a highly contagious flu-like condition that can be particularly dangerous for vulnerable populations, including the very old and the very young.
“For the first time, we have protection for our babies against RSV,” says Dr. Cohen, who stresses the importance of vaccination for anyone in those eligible groups. “If you're pregnant, there's a vaccine for you if you're between 32 and 36 weeks pregnant, and we have an antibody shot that we can give to babies under the age of eight months that can protect them directly against RSV.”
According to the CDC, RSV kills an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 older adults and 100,000 to 200,000 infants each year. Last fall, the United States experienced a dramatic RSV surge1 that was driven by two strains of the virus, RSV-A and RSV-B. It's thought that lack of exposure to the typical seasonal viruses in the years of COVID-19 quarantines and lockdowns may have triggered this surge, which again, occurred alongside a rise in cases of both COVID-19 and the flu, putting an immense strain on hospitals. Getting the RSV vaccine, explains Dr. Cohen, can help prevent a repeat of last year’s spike, and potentially save thousands of lives in the process.
Can I get 2 or 3 of the vaccines at the same time?
If you’re wanting to save time at the doctor’s office, Dr. Cohen says there’s no risk involved with getting any combination of the COVID-19, RSV, and/or flu vaccines at once. There is no minimum waiting period you must adhere to between each vaccine, according to the CDC.
That said, you may want to consult with your doctor ahead of time to discuss your options, as getting multiple shots in one fell swoop could potentially heighten the side effects of each; one 2022 study found that people were slightly more likely to experience side effects when getting the flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine at the same time2, and CDC clinical trials found that those who received the RSV and flu vaccines at the same time experienced slightly more side effects than those who got them separately. Despite this, the CDC reports that getting all three vaccinations at the same time is, again, safe and efficacious.
“If you have the ability to spread them out, [and] you want to do that, that's perfectly fine,” says Dr. Cohen. “You want to get them together? Also fine. It's really more about what works for your schedule.”
What are the side effects of the COVID-19, flu, and RSV vaccines?
Side effects of the COVID-19, flu, and RSV vaccines vary from person to person, but for most patients, the symptoms are mild to moderate. “The most common side effects that we're seeing from these vaccines are pain at the site of the injection, a little arm soreness, and a bit of achiness or fatigue that usually goes away with Tylenol or ibuprofen,” says Dr. Cohen.
While there’s certainly some risk of more severe side effects (like nausea, chills, and fever), Dr. Cohen says that these adverse reactions pale in comparison to how you’d feel after contracting RSV, the flu, or COVID-19, and are typically short-lived.
“The risks of what could happen to you if you don't get vaccinated are much worse, so we want to make sure that everyone's getting protected,” says Dr. Cohen.
4 tips from the CDC to stay healthy this season (beyond getting vaccinated)
1. Stay home if you’re sick
According to Dr. Cohen, one of the best ways to keep your loved ones from getting sick is by limiting your contact with them while you’re sick. Sure, it sucks to miss out on fun outings and gatherings, but with proper rest, treatment, and isolation, you’ll be back on your feet sooner, and you won’t risk getting your family sick in the process. “You don't want to bring germs to your family, particularly if you're gathering with grandparents or other older adults,” says Dr. Cohen.
If you begin to feel any cold, flu, or COVID-19 symptoms , Dr. Cohen suggests getting tested for COVID-19 as soon as possible. “Testing is really important [in order] to get you access to the treatment that could save you from going into the hospital,” says Dr. Cohen.
You can get tested for COVID-19 for free through the CDC’s Increasing Community Access to Testing (ICATT) program. Use this testing center locator to find a free testing location close to your home, or order up to four free at-home self-testing kits from the federal government.
2. Mask up
Wearing face masks might not be the norm anymore, but according to Dr. Cohen, they’re still the best form of personal protection against airborne diseases. Face coverings that fully cover your nose and mouth can shield you from saliva droplets and sprays (yuck!) that you can otherwise inhale when in close proximity to others.
“COVID-19, flu, and RSV are respiratory viruses and spread through the air,” explains Dr. Cohen. “Remember—masks do work to protect you from what might be circulating in your airspace.”
3. Wash your hands
To prevent hand-to-hand transmission of respiratory (and diarrheal) viruses, the CDC recommends properly washing your hands frequently throughout the day. You can easily catch COVID-19, RSV, and the flu by touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands that have come into contact with any of these viruses.
While hand sanitizer does reduce the number of germs on your hands, it doesn’t get rid of all types of germs, according to the CDC. Per the CDC’s handwashing guidelines, be sure to wash your hands before, during, and after cooking; before and after eating; after blowing your nose or sneezing; before and after coming into contact with someone who’s sick; and of course, after using the toilet. Scrub up with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday.”
4. Travel wisely
While airborne illnesses run rampant this time of year, Dr. Cohen says that you can keep your holiday travel plans—just be mindful of your contact with others. Getting vaccinated, masking up when possible, and washing your hands frequently will greatly reduce your chances of getting sick while traveling.
“We all can [still] gather with our friends and travel,” says Dr. Cohen. “I plan to travel this Thanksgiving, but we're using layers of protection. It's why I got vaccinated, my kids got vaccinated, [and] my husband's vaccinated.”
Adhering to these healthy practices can keep you—and your loved ones—safe throughout the holiday season. “We all want to have a happy and healthy holiday season with Thanksgiving being just two weeks away,” says Dr. Cohen. “We know folks are gathering indoors, and that's what viruses like. They like to move around with us, so we need to use the tools that we have available to protect ourselves.”
- Adams, Gordon et al. “The 2022 RSV surge was driven by multiple viral lineages.” medRxiv : the preprint server for health sciences 2023.01.04.23284195. 5 Jan. 2023, doi:10.1101/2023.01.04.23284195. Preprint.
- Hause AM, Zhang B, Yue X, et al. Reactogenicity of Simultaneous COVID-19 mRNA Booster and Influenza Vaccination in the US. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(7):e2222241. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.22241
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