What cancer patients need to know about flu season, especially during a pandemic

Flu vaccine
The viruses that cause COVID-19 and the flu have many similarities, but it’s important to know how they differ and what steps to take to lower the risk of exposure and infection.

It’s flu season. Not exactly the three words you want to hear as cases of COVID-19 surge again around the country. But the reality is we’re facing a fall and winter with two serious viruses circulating among us. With hospitals in many states reaching capacity with COVID-19 patients, most of whom are not vaccinated, influenza patients may put additional strain on health care resources.

“The flu can cause pneumonia, it can cause pneumonia, respiratory failure, encephalitis and death or other serious complications,” says Suji Mathew, MD, Infectious Disease Physician and Chief of Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Atlanta. “It’s a very serious disease.”

While the two viruses have many similarities, it’s important to know how they differ and what steps should be taken to lower the risk of exposure and infection. These steps are especially important for cancer patients, many of whom have compromised immune systems and are at higher risk of infection and severe symptoms.

In this article, Dr. Mathew will address several issues cancer patients need to know as we enter flu season, including:

Cancer won’t wait for COVID-19. If you’ve put off cancer screening or treatment because of the pandemic, call us or chat online with a member of our team to schedule an appointment.

Get vaccinated

Getting vaccinated is the most important step cancer patients, caregivers and their families can take to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 and the flu.

“When the flu vaccine becomes available, you should get it. It’s a good preventative tool to use,” Dr. Mathew says.

Who should get vaccinated?

Research has shown that cancer patients and survivors are at higher risk of experiencing more severe symptoms from COVID-19. They also are at higher risk of developing more severe symptoms from other diseases as well. For these reasons, it’s important that patients, their caregivers and family members get vaccinated for the flu and COVID-19 and are up to date on all other inoculations.

What vaccine should cancer patients get?

The viruses that cause COVID-19 and the flu are different, and the diseases and serious symptoms they cause are prevented with different vaccines. The vaccine for the flu will not protect patients from COVID-19, and vice versa. 

Cancer patients, caregivers and family members should get both the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu vaccine.

When should patients get vaccinated?

Long-term cancer survivors and patients who are not in active treatment should get vaccinated for the flu and COVID-19 as soon as they can. There are some caveats, however.

Patients who have been recently diagnosed, are in treatment or are about to start treatment should talk to their doctor about the best time to get their shot. Some cancer treatments, especially chemotherapy, may damage or suppress the immune system, making vaccines less effective. Patients diagnosed with blood cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma, may also not benefit fully from the vaccine.

Dr. Mathew recommends that patients who haven’t started treatment get the vaccine at least two weeks before treatment. Patients who are on treatment cycles should talk to their doctor about when in the cycle they may get vaccinated.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends that cancer patients and others with compromised immune systems get a booster shot if they:

  • Are in active treatment, especially for a blood cancer
  • Had a stem cell transplant in the last two years
  • Are taking drugs that may suppress the immune system

While the CDC suggests that it’s safe to get both vaccines together, Dr. Mathew says spacing the shots apart, if possible, may have some benefit.

“If you get them at the same time and get some side effects, you may not know which vaccine caused those side effects,” she says. “I recommend spacing them out if you can.”

Why get vaccinated?

The data is clear: More than 95 percent of new COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations are among those who are not vaccinated. And while so-called breakthrough cases have occurred among the vaccinated, those who have gotten the shot usually experience less severe symptoms.

“The purpose of the flu vaccine is the same as the COVID vaccine,” Dr. Mathew says. “The goal is to prevent serious complications and death and reduce hospitalizations. So even if someone tests positive for COVID or the flu, but they have relatively minor symptoms, then the vaccine is considered effective.”

What’s the difference?

On the surface, it may seem that the viruses that cause COVID-19 and the flu are the same. For instance, both viruses:

  • Are transmitted through respiratory droplets
  • May cause severe symptoms in older people and those with pre-existing conditions, such as cancer
  • May cause similar symptoms in the respiratory system, including:
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Body aches
  • Runny or stuffy nose

But the two viruses are not the same and, in fact, differ in ways that often underscore the lethality of the coronavirus. For instance:

  • The COVID-19 virus is much more contagious and spreads more rapidly than most common flu viruses.
  • Flu patients usually experience symptoms within four days of infection. People infected with COVID-19 may not experience symptoms for up to five or more days, allowing them to spread the virus without knowing it.
  • COVID-19 symptoms and complications are usually much more severe and are more likely to require hospitalization, especially in at-risk patients.

“The bottom line is they are two very different viruses,” Dr. Mathew says.

What to expect this flu season

If you want evidence of how effective masking, hand hygiene and social distancing are in preventing the spread of infection, consider last flu season. According to Scientific American, estimated flu deaths fell dramatically in 2020-21 season, compared to previous years:

  • 2020-2021: 700 deaths
  • 2019-2020: 22,000 deaths
  • 2018-2019: 34,000 deaths

Dr. Mathew and others attribute that sudden drop to steps Americans have taken to reduce COVID-19 exposure. As flu season approaches and the COVID-19 Delta variant rages in many states, it’s important for Americans to fight off pandemic fatigue and not to let their guard down in order to stem the tide of new cases of both viruses, Dr. Mathew says.

“It will really depend on how many people follow the guidelines from the CDC,” she says. “If we do what we did last flu season, without a doubt, we’ll see less of it. Among people who are masked and following guidelines, you’ll see a similar picture to what we had last year. In states where they prohibit mask mandates, you may see a different scenario.”

What should cancer patients do?

Other than getting vaccinated, cancer patients, caregivers and their family members can take these steps to reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19 and the flu:

  • Wear a mask and encourage your family members and caregivers to wear them.
  • Avoid large crowds, when possible, and keep space between yourself and others.
  • Wash your hands frequently or use hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid people who are sick, and stay home if you’re sick,

Dr. Mathew stresses that information, guidelines and recommendations may change as the virus continues to mutate and as research reveals more information about how it spreads. It’s important, she says, to get the latest information on the virus and flu season from reliable sources.

“Try to avoid propaganda websites,” she says. “Their information often is not based on data, but on emotions or anecdotes. That’s where it gets very dangerous.”

Cancer won’t wait for COVID-19. If you’ve put off cancer screening or treatment because of the pandemic, call us or chat online with a member of our team to schedule an appointment.