Summer is winding down, the coronavirus pandemic is dragging on and — if that wasn’t enough — peak season for yet another infectious disease is looming just around the corner: influenza.
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During flu season last year, more than 39 million people got sick with influenza, a viral infection that attacks the nose, throat and lungs, according to estimates from the CDC.
So the big question now is: What will this fall and winter be like with both COVID-19 and the flu in the mix?
We don’t exactly know yet, says infectious disease specialist Kristin Englund, MD. But there are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones, and help keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with sick patients this flu season.
What kind of flu season is expected?
In the U.S., flu season can start as early as October, though it sometimes doesn’t rear its head until January or February.
To get an idea of how heavy or light our flu season will be, we can sometimes look to patterns in the Southern Hemisphere, Dr. Englund says. The good news is, so far, South Africa and Australia have both reported lighter than usual flu seasons. Influenza viruses and the coronavirus spread in similar ways, so it’s likely that masking, physical distancing and other actions people are taking to contain the coronavirus are also reducing the spread of the flu.
But it’s not always a guarantee that the U.S. will see the same kind of flu activity as those countries, Dr. Englund says. Only time will tell for sure.
How you can protect yourself
Both the flu and COVID-19 can be serious illnesses. Here’s what you can do to be prepared for flu season:
- Get your flu shot: Studies show the flu vaccine reduces your risk of flu illness overall and makes it less likely that you would get severely sick if you did become infected. “We don’t have a vaccine for COVID-19, so let’s protect ourselves against the one thing we know we can protect ourselves from,” Dr. Englund says. “The flu vaccine not only protects you, but it protects all the loved ones around you.” The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months gets vaccinated. “This year we’re recommending that people get a flu vaccine in September and October so that we’re prepared for the beginning parts of the flu season,” Dr. Englund says.
- Stay vigilant with safety precautions: Like COVID-19, flu viruses spread through droplets that come out of a sick person’s nose or mouth. So, many of the things you’re likely doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — like wearing a mask in public, staying six feet away from others and washing your hands frequently — could also reduce your chances of being exposed to a flu virus.
- Know what to do if you get sick: The flu and COVID-19 have many overlapping symptoms, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath and muscle aches. If you develop these symptoms, call your doctor. He or she can you let you know what to do next and if you should be tested for the flu or COVID-19.
- Stock your medicine cabinet: If you get a mild case of the flu or COVID-19, you’ll want to stay home until you feel better to avoid passing it on to others. Dr. Englund suggests keeping a few things handy in case this happens: a fever reducer like acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen for muscle aches, cough syrup and thermometer. If you have an underlying condition that puts you at greater risk for severe illness, it may also be helpful to have a pulse oximeter at home, which measures the levels of oxygen in your blood.
Winter is also prime time for other contagious viral illnesses like respiratory syncytial virus (which commonly infects children) and norovirus (a stomach bug). Many of the recommendations for curbing the spread of COVID-19 and the flu can also help keep these viruses at bay. Washing your hands frequently, disinfecting high-touch surfaces often, practicing good cough etiquette and staying home when you’re sick are good practices during the winter no matter what.
But with the added layer of COVID-19 this year, they’re extra important. “I think we’re going to have to get very comfortable with practicing all of these preventative measures,” Dr. Englund says. “If we want to get back to more of a normal life — being able to go out to movie theaters and being able to send our kids to school safely — we’re going to need to practice all of these preventative measures and understand that we’re not only protecting ourselves, but we’re protecting those around us.”