This article appeared in Michigan Medicine. Read more here.
As the old song says, there’s no place like home for the holidays.
That is, unless you’re home on the couch with a fever, cough or sick child, while everyone else is out decking the halls, dashing through the snow, spinning the dreidl or playing reindeer games.
Or even worse, you could get stuck spending a not-so-silent night in the emergency department, or ringing in the new year in a hospital bed.
So, as the holiday season gets into high gear, now’s the time to get yourself and those you love vaccinated against diseases that tend to spike in winter.
Cases of flu, COVID-19 and RSV have already started to rise, but it’s not too late to get vaccinated and take other steps to protect yourself.
Three doctors from across University of Michigan Health – Del DeHart, M.D., who directs infection prevention at UM Health-West, Preeti Malani, M.D., who specializes in infectious diseases and the care of older adults at the main Michigan Medicine campus, and Steve W. Martin, M.D., who focuses on intensive care for very sick children at U-M Health at Sparrow Children’s Hospital – weigh in on the discussion to keep you safe.
Watch the video above from a recent live vaccine discussion to hear their sage advice.
12 tips for avoiding winter illnesses
1. Get the updated COVID-19 vaccine for yourself and everyone over the age of 6 months
Three different brands – made by Pfizer, Moderna and Novavax – have been available since September.
All of them can really make a difference in boosting your ability to fight off a new coronavirus infection – even if you had COVID-19 this past summer.
But less than a quarter of Americans have gotten one yet.
Go to vaccines.gov to find a dose near you or ask if you can do a walk-in vaccination at the pharmacy counter the next time you’re there.
The updated COVID vaccines were developed to address the newest strains of the virus that has been plaguing the world for nearly four years.
Said DeHart, “The strains are changing over time, but the seriousness of the illness hasn’t changed dramatically. These vaccines are very effective for preventing critical illness and serious illness.”
2. Get the flu vaccine for yourself and everyone over the age of 6 months
Malani notes that in addition to making just about anyone miserable for days or weeks, the flu can lead to severe, life-threatening illness in older adults.
But nearly a third of them still haven’t gotten this year’s updated flu vaccine.
If you know one of them, “Give them a call and remind them to get their flu vaccine, especially before the holidays,” she said.
Martin says the flu vaccine is also especially important for young children and anyone with asthma.
“With travel we become one big melting pot,” at the holidays, which helps flu spread quickly, Malani added.
“Don’t bring it home and don’t take it with you. Having a vaccination really helps protect those around you, not just you.”
3. Get the new RSV vaccine if you’re over 60, or in the last months of pregnancy. Get your newborn or toddler immunized against RSV if they are eligible
New options to prevent respiratory syncytial virus just became available this year for all three groups.
“As a pediatric critical care physician, I meet children and families on their worst days. These vaccines can prevent thousands of those worst days in the United States every year,” said Martin, who notes that in 2022, RSV cases in children were twice as high as they’d been in the past 10 years.
More than 1,000 infants die of RSV each year, and those who survive have a higher risk of asthma later in life.
The new RSV options that can be given between the 32nd and 36th week of pregnancy, or the first 8 months of life, have been shown to reduce severe disease by as much as 80%, Martin notes.
But RSV isn’t just a problem for kids – it leads to the deaths of more than 10,000 older adults a year, Malani says.
People over 60 who have health issues or are around young children should especially seek vaccination right away.
4. If you have a baby, toddler or tween, or if you’re immunocompromised or over 65, there are vaccines against bacteria that cause pneumonia
The pneumococcal vaccines aren’t as well known as the COVID and flu shots, but they can really help protect against pneumonia in older adults, adults with certain immune-compromising conditions, and teens.
And in infants and toddlers, they can protect against life-threatening body-wide infections as well as less-serious, but still miserable, ear and lung infections.
“Talk to a health care provider who can make a specific recommendation about what formulation and schedule to get,” said Malani.
5. Stay home if you’re sick, and keep sick children home too
All three experts say it loud and clear: Don’t let “fear of missing out” on holiday events tempt you to go out anyway.
You could endanger vulnerable people you care about.
6. If you have an infant, or will be around an infant, get the vaccine that protects against whooping cough
The illness, also called pertussis, can land a baby in the hospital or even kill them.
Infants often get it from a teen or adult whose last dose of vaccine was too long ago to prevent them from spreading the virus.
Dehart says many people don’t even know they’re sick when they spread it.
Every adult should get a booster dose of the vaccine that protects against pertussis every 10 years.
It’s bundled with vaccines against two other diseases and called the Tdap vaccine.
Every child should get four doses by the time they’re a year and a half old, and another booster when they’re 11 or 12.
7. Don’t wait to get the shots you’re eligible for. It takes time for your immune system to build up after each vaccine
The rule of thumb is that a full immune response to a vaccine takes two weeks, though partial protection begins before that, Malani says.
“If there’s a big event in your life – or simply the holidays and getting together with family,” get vaccinated as soon as possible, she said.
8. Wear masks in crowded public spaces and reduce your exposures before visiting vulnerable people
With many viruses circulating at once, putting on a mask on airplanes, at the mall, during worship services, or at your child’s school concert, could protect you from getting sick.
Cutting back on unmasked exposures to crowds in the days before you visit a new baby or a vulnerable adult could also help you avoid giving a holiday “gift” no one wants.
If you’re hosting a gathering or visiting others, improve air flow and filtration by keeping a window partly open, running the fan on the heating system or using an air purifier.
9. Go to the vaccination site you can reach fastest
Most pharmacies offer at least some vaccinations, though you may need to check with your insurance plan to make sure they will cover the cost of the COVID-19 vaccine at the pharmacy you want to go to.
Your city or county public health department is also likely a good source, and your regular primary care clinic should offer most vaccines.
Except in rare cases, you should not have to pay for any vaccine that’s officially recommended for you or your child.
10. Don’t hesitate to get multiple vaccines at once
Said Dehart, “There’s no reason not to get them together if you’re taking the time to go to the pharmacy. It saves a lot of time and it’s perfectly safe to get them together.”
In fact, there’s some evidence suggesting getting two vaccines at the same time can increase the effectiveness of both.
11. If you or your children get sick, get tested
Home tests for COVID-19 and new home tests for flu can help you know what’s making you or your child sick – and help you know if you or your teen could get treatment with Paxlovid for COVID-19, or you or your child could get Tamiflu for flu.
Both are prescription medicines that can reduce the risk of severe illness.
COVID tests are available for free by mail again.
You may also be able to get a free combination flu and COVID rapid test kit sent to you by the federal government, depending on your insurance status.
And everyone who has a positive test for flu or COVID can access free telehealth-based help with getting a prescription for antiviral medications.
There’s no home test for RSV.
But doctors also have access to higher-accuracy rapid tests for flu and RSV now, as well as “gold standard” PCR tests for COVID-19.
In addition to helping you know what you or your child has, tests can guide you on how long to stay away from other people or wear a mask in public.
Testing can also help you avoid getting antibiotics for illnesses caused by viruses.
After all, they won’t work, and using them could cause bacteria in your system to evolve and develop resistance to the drugs so they won’t work if you need them in the future.
12. Don’t believe everything you see on social media about vaccines
The misinformation about multiple vaccines has spread far and wide, so don’t take anything you see on social media or hear in a conversation as the truth without checking out official sources.
Seek out good sources of information by talking to your pharmacist, doctor or nurse practitioner, or by checking the vaccination websites run by the CDC and physician organizations such as the American Geriatrics Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics.