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When is flu season?
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, says infectious disease specialist Kristin Englund, MD. That’s also why experts foresee a flu season with more cases this year.
“We often use Australia as a way to predict what we’re going to have because they’re kind of a season ahead of us,” Dr. Englund explains. “This year, they’ve seen a rise in the number of cases of influenza. And we are certainly going to see a significant rise in the number of cases of influenza this year as well.”
Will flu season be bad this year?
The 2020-2021 flu season was historically light. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that only 2,038 flu cases were reported between September 2020 and April 2021. In contrast, the CDC estimated the number of flu cases jumped to between 8 and 13 million between October 2021 and June 2022.
As for what to expect this year? Dr. Englund says flu season won’t be as light as it was a few years ago.
The difference comes down to COVID-19-related changes in behavior. “A few years ago, everyone was masking and practicing hand hygiene,” says Dr. Englund. “We were socially distancing and not going out, because of COVID. Influenza is spread the same way, so we were protecting ourselves from influenza as well.”
With the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccines and the lifting of mask requirements, people started going out more. This shifted the following year’s flu season — and the forthcoming one as well. “People are getting out more in the world,” says Dr. Englund. “They’re tired of being cooped up — I certainly understand that. But by the same token, we’re putting ourselves more at risk not just for COVID, but also for influenza.”
How to prepare for flu season
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.
Complicating matters further is that the flu and COVID-19 often have overlapping symptoms. “Influenza can be deadly on its own,” Dr. Englund states. “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.”
Even though we’re dealing with new COVID-19 strains that weren’t circulating last year, the symptoms are still similar.
“COVID has certainly gone through a number of different variations,” notes Dr. Englund. “But when you get down to it the core symptoms of COVID — fever, chills, body aches, difficulty breathing, a cough — are very, very similar to influenza. It can be very difficult to tell the two apart.”
But 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’ll get severely sick if you do become infected. “The flu vaccine not only protects you, but it protects all the loved ones around you,” says Dr. Englund.
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,” she continues. “We have seen in recent years that flu season can show up sooner and last a lot longer. So, it’s really important to get the flu vaccine as soon as it’s available for you.”
- Wear a mask. Even if you’re vaccinated — for COVID-19 and the flu — you should still mask up while in public, especially indoors or in crowded outdoor settings.
“We’re seeing many more people going out without masks,” notes Dr. Englund. “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.”
Additionally, masking can protect you from getting sick in other ways. “I would encourage you to wear masks during the respiratory illness season,” she adds. “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 from the nose or mouth. Many of the things you’ve done 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 the 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 a healthcare provider. They can let you know what to do next and if you should be tested for the flu or COVID-19, or get a prescription for a COVID-specific antiviral treatment or an antiviral treatment for the flu.
- Stock your medicine cabinet. You can also prepare for the flu at home. Dr. Englund suggests keeping a few items 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’re 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 stresses. “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.”