Autumn is here, the coronavirus pandemic is dragging on and — if that wasn’t enough — peak season for yet another infectious disease looms just around the corner: influenza, a viral infection that attacks the nose, throat and lungs.
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Last year’s flu season was historically light. The CDC reported that only 2,038 flu cases were reported between Sept. 27, 2020, and April 24, 2021 — in contrast to the more than 39 million people who were sick with influenza the previous year.
In the U.S., flu season can start as early as October, though it sometimes doesn’t rear its head until January or February.
Still, this year’s bigger question isn’t when flu season will start — it’s more, what will this year’s flu season look like since COVID-19 is still in the mix?
What kind of flu season do experts expect?
Flu season won’t be as light as last year, says infectious disease specialist Kristin Englund, MD. “Unfortunately, we’re expecting to have a worse flu season this year.”
The difference comes down to COVID-related changes in behavior. “Last year, we had many areas where there were mask mandates, where businesses were closed down,” Dr. Englund says. “People were really paying very close attention to socially isolating and hand hygiene.”
In many places, this year looks quite different, she adds. “We’re seeing many more people going out without masks. As a result, even if they’re protected from COVID by being vaccinated, they’re not protected from influenza unless they’ve gotten the flu vaccine.”
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. That’s also not quite as reliable this year. “It’s going to be very different because they have maintained a lot of their prevention strategies, where we have loosened a lot of ours.”
Complicating matters further is that the flu and COVID-19 often have overlapping symptoms. “Influenza can be deadly on its own,” Dr. Englund says. “But it’s going to be very difficult for people to understand whether they have COVID or influenza during this timeframe because more people will have symptoms.”
How you can protect yourself
Both the flu and COVID-19 can be serious illnesses. 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.
However, there are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones. 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. 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.
- Wear a mask. Even if you’re vaccinated — for COVID and the flu — you should still mask up while in public. “I would encourage you to wear masks during the respiratory illness season,” Dr. Englund says. “There’s a lot of different viruses that can cause harm, not just COVID.”
- 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 getting vaccinated, 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. “I’m very comfortable continuing to wear my mask and using hand hygiene and social distancing when I go out in public, even though I’ve been COVID vaccinated and will be flu vaccinated,” Dr. Englund says.
- 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. They can let you know what to do next and if you should be tested for the flu or COVID-19.
- Stock your medicine cabinet: You can also prepare for the flu at home. 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 a thermometer. “There are a lot of great over-the-counter medications that you can use just for symptomatic relief,” Dr. Englund says. “Get a flu and cold medication to also help cut down on the nasal stuffiness and the cough that you might have.” 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.
- Stay home if you are sick — and get tested for COVID-19: If you get the flu or COVID-19, you’ll want to stay home until you feel better to avoid passing it on to others. Still, because both viruses have similar symptoms, you’ll also want to get tested for COVID-19 as soon as you can. “Take care of yourself,” Dr. Englund says. “Make sure that you’re getting tested. Make sure that you’re not going into work and that you’re isolating yourself until you can get tested and know what you’re dealing with and how best to treat yourself.”
Winter is also prime time for other contagious viral illnesses like respiratory syncytial virus or RSV (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 still in play, 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. “Masks, for example, may become a routine part of our lives during these severe respiratory illness seasons. And that’s ok, if we’re able to protect people and lower the number of deaths. With these preventative measures, we’re not only protecting ourselves, but we’re protecting those around us.”