By the Minnesota Council of Health Plans and the Minnesota Hospital Association

Did you know there’s a virus that sickens tens of thousands of Americans every year, especially during the fall and winter seasons? Epidemiologists track its spread around the world, and they watch for variant forms that inevitably emerge. Each year scientists work to develop a special vaccine that can help the body fend off the latest strain, reduce the severity of illness and risk of death.

It sounds like COVID-19 and its many variants. But we’re referring to influenza — or the flu — as it’s commonly known. Although COVID-19 continues to be in the spotlight, this is no time to take the flu for granted. Like COVID-19, the flu can cause serious illness, require hospitalization and lead to death. As kids return to classrooms and outdoor activities transition back to indoors, it’s important for children and adults to get their flu shot.

Influenza causes many of the same symptoms as COVID-19, including fever, headache, cough, sore throat, muscle aches and fatigue. Severe cases can cause pneumonia, bronchitis, ear and sinus infections. The flu can also weaken your body’s immune system, putting you at increased risk of contracting COVID-19.

Most adults and children as young as six months can get a flu vaccine. Anyone can get the flu (even healthy people), but those most at risk of getting the flu are children, pregnant women and those with chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes and asthma. The flu shot, which is also available in a nasal mist, stimulates the immune system to recognize and attack the influenza virus. The vaccine is updated each year to provide the best match against the current virus strains. Studies show a well-matched vaccine can reduce the risk of flu illness by 40-60%.

According to CDC estimates, more adults are getting the flu shot each year. The same was true for children—up until the 2019-2020 flu season. Just 58% of kids received their flu vaccine that year, a 5.1 percentage point drop from the prior year. Experts say it’s important to get vaccinated against the flu since both the flu virus and COVID-19 will spread simultaneously this winter.

Flu shots are widely available at your doctor’s office, pharmacies, clinics, retail clinics and public health offices. Talk to your health care provider about the flu shot for more information.