The new, updated COVID-19 boosters are available now — and everyone age 12 and up may be eligible to get them, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say. With the usual flu season quickly approaching as well, you'll also have the option to get your new COVID-19 booster and flu shot at the same appointment.
Most people aren't likely to get significantly more side effects or — more severe side effects — than they would if they'd only gotten one vaccine or the other, experts told TODAY. But side effects are definitely possible and can be unpleasant for a day or two, the experts said, so it's smart to think ahead, plan your appointment well and be prepared to not feel your best for a little while.
Why do we need another COVID-19 booster?
It's important to get a booster because the vaccines' protection against infection seems to wane more quickly now, Dr. Otto Yang, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases and of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, told TODAY.
There's early evidence that even that long-lasting protection against severe disease and death may begin to wane now, too, he said. “We’ve enjoyed the luxury of seeing death rates and severe illness drop a lot,” Yang said, “but to maintain that people need to continue to get boosters.”
The development of these particular boosters (from both Moderna and Pfizer) is a big deal. Before, the only vaccines available were the same ones we’ve had since December 2020 even though the virus has mutated significantly since the beginning of the pandemic, Dr. Frank Esper, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, told TODAY.
"But now they have reformulated that vaccine so that it also works against the most recent omicron strain. So it's a little more tailored to what we're seeing now," he explained.
These updated shots target both the omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of the coronavirus as well as the original strain, which is why they're called bivalent boosters.
"It's an exciting development because it's the first time in a while we've had what appears to be a good match between the vaccine and the circulating strain," Dr. Thomas Murray, associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the Yale School of Medicine, told TODAY.
That means there's more potential for these boosters to more effectively curb the spread of COVID-19 infections in addition to preventing severe illness and deaths, he said.
Can I get my COVID-19 booster and flu vaccine at the same time?
Yes, you can. The official guidance from the CDC is that, while there is limited data available right now, there are no major concerns about getting your booster and your flu shot at the same time.
One of the big reasons for that is just simple convenience, Murray said. This way, you don't need to make multiple visits.
The other reason is that we now have some encouraging data from last year that reinforces how safe it is to get both vaccines at once. Some studies found that people who got both shots at the same time had a slightly higher rate of side effects. But they were not more likely to get serious or severe side effects than those who just received the previous COVID-19 booster on its own. Other studies found no differences in the rates of reactogenicity between those who got two shots and those who just got one.
All of this supports the idea that, for most of us, getting a flu shot and a COVID-19 booster at the same time is a safe and convenient way to check off those boxes on our seasonal to-do lists.
"There's no cross-reaction, one vaccine is not inhibiting the other or causing adverse events in the other," Esper said. "They're completely different medicines but you can receive them at the same time."
There are a few instances in which you might want to wait on one shot or the other, though. For example, if you had COVID-19 within the last three months, the CDC says you can consider waiting to get a booster depending on your individual risk factors. But that's not a reason to delay your flu vaccine, Murray said. And if you're not sure what makes the most sense for you, check with your doctor.
Will I get more side effects if I get them at the same time?
The research we have so far suggests that people don't usually get more intense side effects if they get these two vaccines together — but it's still possible. And if you know that you tend to react more to these vaccines, then it's reasonable to assume you'll react more when you get them at the same time, Esper said.
To make things a little more bearable, the CDC recommends getting one shot in each arm or, if you're getting them in the same limb, to get them at least an inch apart, Murray explained.
The exact side effects you might get from either vaccine will vary from person to person. And although we don't have too much data yet on the new omicron boosters in humans, there's no reason to think they will be significantly different from those seen with past COVID-19 boosters, Yang said.
Here are the most common potential side effects of each, according to the CDC.
Common COVID-19 booster side effects:
Pain, swelling and redness at the injection site
Common flu shot side effects:
Redness, soreness and swelling around the injection site
How to prepare for booster and flu shot side effects:
Keep in mind that "these are very common side effects but are not serious side effects," Esper said. "They're not life-threatening side effects and they go away on their own." So even if you're feeling miserable, know that it's temporary. And there are some ways to make yourself feel a little better while you recuperate.
First, plan ahead. Try to schedule your vaccines for when you don't have much going on in the following day or two, just in case you need to lay low due to side effects. "So if you have a big meeting at work or your child is in sports and has a big game, that's probably not the day to go get the vaccine," Murray said.
If you're in pain after your shots, take over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Guidance on this might vary because there are "some theoretical concerns" that taking a medication like this could affect how well your immune system responds to the vaccine, Murray said.
That's why Yang recommends waiting about four hours after getting the vaccine to take medication if you can. But there's very little conclusive data on that point, he explained. And if you're feeling significant side effects like arm soreness, fever, headache or muscle aches, the experts agreed that it's reasonable to manage those with OTC medication. (But you should not take those medications before getting your shots, the CDC says.)
The CDC also suggests gently using or exercising the arm that's sore and applying a cool compress to ease soreness and swelling.
There are a few potentially serious (but rare) side effects, like allergic reactions, that require medical attention.
But, for the most part, think of those side effects as signs that your vaccines are kicking in and that your body is doing its job to keep you safe. "That feeling is your immune system turning on and developing the protection that's going to last for the next months to years going forward," Esper said.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com
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