By Misagh Karimi, M.D., Oncologist at City of Hope Newport Beach
For cancer patients wondering whether they should get a flu shot this year as the COVID-19 crisis continues, the answer from the medical community is a resounding yes.
Flu season and COVID-19 are about to collide, and cancer patients may feel overloaded with information as they seek to protect themselves from both illnesses amid a constant stream of health advisories.
In August 2020, the CDC said that patients with COVID-19 should hold off getting their flu shot to avoid exposing others in the healthcare setting. At the same time, the agency’s standing advice for people with cancer or a history of cancer is that flu vaccination is especially important.
What does this all mean for cancer patients, survivors, and their families?
The broad consensus among medical experts is that cancer patients should get the shot. They, along with other patients with weakened immune systems, need to diligently protect themselves from contagious diseases like the flu, which can be more harmful or even life-threatening to them than to otherwise healthy people. Cancer patients have a higher risk of developing serious complications like pneumonia if they come down with the flu. Orange County needs to conserve healthcare resources to safeguard against possible COVID-19 outbreaks that overlap with flu season.
Cancer patients need to receive a flu injection, not the nasal mist, experts say. The nasal mist is made from live, weakened virus cells, while the flu shot uses dead virus cells. While the likelihood is small that the active cells in the mist could result in a flu infection, it’s a risk that can be avoided by getting the shot instead.
Other ways cancer patients can protect themselves from the flu intersect with COVID-19 prevention guidelines such as masking and social distancing, and include:
- Washing hands frequently with soap and water
- Wearing a mask and gloves, especially when indoors
- Staying away from people who are sick
- Avoiding crowded places
- Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces
When is the best time to get a flu shot? As soon as possible, because it works throughout the flu season. Even if it’s later in the season, vaccination should continue as long as the flu virus is circulating, according to the CDC.
And yes, it’s safe. Flu shots have a long-standing record of safety in people with cancer. And even though vaccines are not generally recommended for patients actively receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatment, the flu shot is the exception to the rule, according to the American Cancer Society. Caregivers, family members of cancer patients, and survivors should also be vaccinated.
There is no evidence that a flu shot will increase the risk of getting sick from a coronavirus like the one that causes COVID-19, said the CDC. People who have been exposed to COVID-19 should stay home and get their shot after they meet the criteria to come out of isolation, as their doctor recommends.
In addition to a flu shot, cancer patients should consider getting a pneumococcal shot. Pneumococcal pneumonia is flu complication that can be especially dangerous for patients with a weakened immune system.
And even though the shot cannot guarantee you will not become infected with the flu, it may reduce the severity of the infection—another worthwhile to reason to get it early and annually.
Cancer patients should be having conversations with their doctors now, if they haven’t already, about which vaccine to get, the best time to get it, and whether their cancer treatment may affect how well their body responds. They should also plan with their doctor in advance about what to do if they think they are coming down with the flu, when they should call the doctor, and how they can quickly get any antiviral medications they may need.”
Misagh Karimi, M.D., is a medical oncologist at City of Hope’s Newport Beach location.