“You can certainly get both the flu and Covid-19 at the same time, which could be catastrophic to your immune system,” said Dr. Adrian Burrowes, a family medicine physician in Florida.
In fact, getting infected with one can make you more vulnerable to getting sick with the other, epidemiologist Dr. Seema Yasmin said.
“Once you get infected with the flu and some other respiratory viruses, it weakens your body,” said Yasmin, director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative.
“Your defenses go down, and it makes you vulnerable to getting a second infection on top of that.”
Having both illness simultaneously “would increase the risk of longer-term effects of any of those organ systems,” said Dr. Michael Matthay, a professor of medicine and a critical care specialist at the University of California, San Francisco.
But it’s too early to know exactly how much worse that double whammy could be, compared to having each virus on its own.
That’s because Covid-19 didn’t spread across the US until near the end of the last flu season, Matthay said. So there’s not a lot of data yet on people who get both illnesses at the same time.
But Matthay suspects the potential for pneumonia would be greater if the body is infected with both the flu and coronavirus.
“The two (viruses) together definitely could be more injurious to the lungs and cause more respiratory failure,” he said.
Respiratory failure doesn’t necessarily mean your lungs stop working. It means the lungs can’t get enough oxygen into the blood.
How can I tell if I have Covid-19 or the flu (or both)?
“Symptoms of influenza and Covid-19 are pretty similar, so it’s difficult to distinguish the two,” said Dr. Leonard Mermel, medical director for the Department of Epidemiology and Infection Control at Rhode Island Hospital.
“Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults,” the CDC said.
So the best way to know if you have the novel coronavirus or the flu (or both) is to get tested.
How can I avoid this flu-Covid-19 double whammy?
With the imminent flu season, such precautions can “doubly protect us from both of those viruses,” Yasmin said.
But in the US, some people are getting lax about mask wearing and social distancing. And that’s a big problem, said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
She said there could be a “perfect storm of accelerated Covid-19 activity, as people gather more — inside, in particular — as they become continually fatigued with the mask wearing, the social distancing and the hand hygiene, and as they are exposed to seasonal influenza.”
And since no Covid-19 vaccine is publicly available yet, the flu shot is the only way you can help inoculate yourself against having both viruses at the same time.
Getting a flu shot can also help many more people than just yourself, said immunologist Dr. Susan Bailey, president of the American Medical Association.
“Since hospitals and doctors’ offices are going to be very busy caring for Covid-19 patients, a flu vaccine can help decrease burdens on the health care system and make sure that those who need medical care are able to get it,” Bailey said.
“Every year, many patients get severe influenza with respiratory failure,” Matthay said. Among patients who get severe pneumonia from the flu, “the vast majority of those patients have not had their flu vaccine that year.”
CNN’s Amanda Watts, Jen Rose Smith, John Bonifield, Jacqueline Howard and Elizabeth Cohen contributed to this report.