The flu vaccine. The COVID-19 vaccines. What’s the difference? And do you really need both?

As we gear up for another influenza season, and with COVID-19 still in our communities, you may have a lot of questions about these vaccines – and if they work together.

Read on to learn what makes each vaccine different, why they’re safe and why it’s so important to get both this year, when to get vaccinated and more.

Flu vaccines and COVID-19 vaccines: What’s the difference?

While COVID-19 and seasonal flu have similar symptoms, they are not caused by the same virus. That means flu vaccines and the COVID-19 vaccines are designed to protect against the specific viruses that cause their respective illnesses.

So, the flu vaccine does not protect against COVID-19 and the COVID-19 vaccine does not protect against the flu.

The flu is caused by influenza viruses, and flu vaccines have been around for decades. Each year, specific flu vaccines are recommended to help provide the best protection against the strains research says will be the most common that year.

COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. Our bodies had never encountered this type of coronavirus before the pandemic, so they hadn’t built antibodies to fight it. And we didn’t have a vaccine to protect against it until the first was authorized in late 2020. Now, we have a range of COVID-19 vaccines, plus COVID-19 boosters, which are additional doses of the vaccine that help “boost” your immune responses after they’ve naturally decreased over time.

How is each vaccine designed?

There are a lot of types of vaccines, and they all work a little differently. What they have in common is that they all trigger an immune system response that produces the antibodies that will help your body fight off a virus or infection if you encounter it.

How are COVID-19 vaccines different from other vaccines? (And what’s the difference between each COVID-19 vaccine?)

All available COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective and reduce your chance of severe illness. There are three different types of COVID-19 vaccines:

  • mRNA vaccine – This kind of vaccine includes genetic material with specific chemical instructions that ask your body’s cells to make a small, noninfectious piece of spike protein, which is located on the surface of the coronavirus. The spike protein is how COVID-19 enters the body and how your immune system recognizes it. The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are mRNA vaccines.
  • Viral vector vaccine – This type of vaccine starts with a harmless virus (not COVID-19) and adds a DNA snippet coded with a small noninfectious piece of the COVID-19 spike protein. The COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson is a viral vector vaccine.
  • Protein subunit vaccine – Subunit vaccines include parts of the virus to stimulate your immune system response. The Novavax vaccine is a protein subunit vaccine that include harmless S proteins from the virus. Subunit vaccines have been used for many years to prevent conditions such as hepatitis B, shingles and whooping cough.

What kind of vaccine is the flu shot?

There are two types of flu vaccines: conventional shots and nasal spray flu vaccines, which are also called nasal mists.

Conventional flu shots are usually inactivated vaccines, meaning there’s no live virus in it. Nasal spray flu vaccines (FluMist) are live attenuated vaccines, which means they have a small amount of active virus that is weakened. Neither can give you the flu, despite the common myths about flu vaccines, and both provide greater immunity to influenza.

Do I need the COVID-19 vaccine and a flu shot this year?

Yes. Since the flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine protect against different viruses, both are recommended for those who are eligible.

Get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you can

COVID-19 vaccination is also recommended for people 6 months old and up – including those who’ve already had COVID-19 and may have long-haul COVID symptoms.

What about COVID-19 booster shots?

Most fully vaccinated people over the age of 5 years old are currently eligible to receive COVID-19 booster shots. People who received the Novavax vaccine and children who received the Moderna vaccine are not yet eligible for booster shots. It’s possible to get your COVID-19 booster and flu shot at the same time.

Learn more about COVID-19 boosters.

Get the flu vaccine before flu season hits

Annual flu vaccines are recommended for anyone 6 months old and older. That means even if you had a flu shot or nasal spray vaccine last year, you should also receive this year’s vaccine.

Flu shots are usually available beginning in early September. Here’s what you should know about the flu vaccine and who should get one:

  • Ages 6 months to 8 years old: If your child hasn’t had a flu shot before, two doses are needed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends kids get their first dose as soon as possible so that they can get their second dose by the end of October. If your child has received a flu shot in the past, they’ll need just one dose – which they should get by the end of October.
    • FluMist is a safe option for kids 2 years old and up who don’t have contraindications. This can be a good option if your little one is concerned about getting a shot.
  • Ages 8 to 65 years old: Aim to get vaccinated in September or October.
    • FluMist is also a safe option for people in this age group through 49 years old who don’t have contraindications.
  • Ages 65 and up – When older patients get the flu, they are more likely to get very sick. We recommend getting a flu shot that is specially formulated for patients aged 65 and older as soon as you can.
  • Pregnant peopleGetting a flu shot when you’re pregnant is important. It can even keep your newborn baby healthier. So get your flu shot right away, especially if you’re in your third trimester of pregnancy.
  • People with egg allergies – People with egg allergies can receive any influenza vaccine formulation.

Can you have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time?

Yes, it’s possible to be infected with COVID-19 and influenza at the same time. That’s why it’s important to receive both vaccinations.

Can you receive a COVID-19 and flu vaccine at the same time?

Yes. There’s no waiting period between receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu vaccine or any other vaccines.

Can you get both vaccines in the same arm?

Yes. It’s possible to get the COVID-19 and flu vaccine in the same arm.

Should I wait to get the COVID-19 vaccine until I get this year’s flu vaccine?

No. There’s no reason to wait until you receive this year’s flu vaccine.

Protect yourself and your loved ones by getting vaccinated

COVID-19 and the seasonal flu are both highly contagious illnesses that can lead to serious complications. Getting vaccinated against these viruses is the best way to keep you and your loved ones safe.

COVID-19 vaccines and boosters are currently available at HealthPartners – you do not need to be a current patient. By getting vaccinated, you can significantly reduce your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. So, consider getting vaccinated or boosted if you haven’t already.

Flu shot appointments are typically available starting in early September. It’s recommended that you get vaccinated before flu season begins – ideally before the end of October. This helps makes sure you’re protected for the entire flu season.