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Winter Wellness

Preventing Respiratory Illness Is Worth a Shot — Or Two

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respiratory-illness-vaccinations-flu-flu shot

As we enter our third holiday season with COVID-19, there are reasons to be hopeful — but also concerned — about the winter months ahead.

Sandra Fryhofer, M.D.

Board Chair, American Medical Association

While Europe is experiencing its typical COVID-19 surge this fall, often a predictor of increased cases here at home, the United States is experiencing an alarming uptick in respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, in young children. Meanwhile, the flu season began earlier than usual in the Southern Hemisphere this year, and the United States is seeing early increases in seasonal influenza activity.

In other words, approach this holiday season with caution, especially if you have plans to celebrate with young children, seniors, or friends and family with weakened immune systems.

But here’s the good news: we have vaccines for respiratory illnesses, including updated COVID-19 boosters, which provide protection against serious symptoms from these viruses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends flu and COVID-19 vaccines for anyone over the age of 6 months — including people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or currently trying to conceive.

Respiratory illness vaccinations in pregnant women and children

Research shows that flu and COVID-19 vaccinations pass on antibodies against the virus through the umbilical cord, giving the mother and her developing child a powerful defense against the viruses. This underscores the importance of vaccination during pregnancy to help keep infants from being hospitalized even in the event they contract the viruses.

Vaccinating young children to prevent the most serious risks from COVID-19 is important this fall, because our pediatric hospital beds are already more than 70% filled nationwide, due in part to RSV. RSV typically poses no serious threat, but it can trigger severe illness in infants and those at high risk for illness. Although clinical trials are underway, there is no vaccine currently available to protect against RSV.

That’s why it is important that families with children take advantage of the protections we do have – safe and highly effective vaccines for COVID-19 and the flu, washing your hands, staying home when you’re sick, and wearing a medical-grade mask in indoor public settings. Antiviral treatments are also available for COVID-19 and flu, so it is important to connect with your clinician early in symptom onset as these treatments can lessen symptom severity and shorten the duration of illness.

Once more, the American Medical Association is partnering with the CDC and the Ad Council on a national “Get My Flu Shot” campaign to answer important questions and help people find flu vaccine in their area. Science has given us to the tools to protect ourselves and loved ones this holiday season. The rest is up to us.

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