Getting Ahead of the Flu
Every year, as temperatures drop and we spend more time indoors, cases of influenza (flu) increase. Flu is a highly contagious respiratory illness that affects millions of people worldwide every year. After a couple of years where far fewer people got the flu, experts are predicting it will make a comeback this year.
What is expected this year?
Every year, experts look to countries in the Southern Hemisphere, like Australia and Argentina, to get an idea of what the flu season will be like in North America. That’s because, as a seasonal – fall/winter – illness, the flu hits the Southern Hemisphere from April – October. This year, Australia saw a severe, early flu season, with many cases in children ages 5 – 9. That would indicate that the U.S. and the rest of North America will see a similar season and so far, it seems to be true. Since the flu season began on October 1, the CDC estimates there have been more than 1.5 million cases of the flu, and reports that the hospitalization rate is higher than at this time in any of the last 12 flu seasons.
Another reason doctors expect that this year’s flu season might be worse than usual is the milder flu seasons the past two winters, especially the historically low number of cases in the winter of 2020-2021. Why were there so few cases? The last two winters, people were wearing face masks and social distancing. They were having fewer gatherings and traveling less. Those precautions, taken in response to the COVID pandemic, meant that fewer people were exposed to the flu. It also means people now have less natural immunity to the flu because they haven’t had it recently. That is especially true for very young children, some of whom may not have ever been exposed to the flu.
Is it the flu, a cold, or COVID?
The flu, colds, and COVID are all respiratory diseases caused by viruses. They spread through droplets released when breathing, coughing, sneezing, or speaking and may cause many of the same symptoms, especially early in the illness. All three can cause sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, and cough. But colds are generally mild, while flu and COVID can make you feel much sicker. Have a fever, headache, or feel achy, exhausted, or weak? It’s more likely you have the flu or COVID. The flu and COVID can also cause shortness of breath, vomiting, and diarrhea, and COVID can cause a loss of taste or smell. Not everyone has every symptom, and your symptoms might be more or less severe. If you have a high fever, shortness of breath, or other serious symptoms, call your healthcare professional.
Most people who get the flu will be sick for a few days to a couple of weeks and then get better. But for some people, the flu can cause serious complications like pneumonia. In an average flu season, 750,000 – 1 million people have complications serious enough to require hospitalization, and 30,000 – 80,000 people will die. Most of these severe illnesses and deaths are among people 65 and older.
Tips to avoid getting the flu (or spreading it!)
No one wants to get the flu. At best, it means feeling crummy for a few days, at worst, it can lead to pneumonia or even death. But there are some things you can do to reduce your chances of getting the flu (or giving it to someone else). Here are some ideas from the NIH:3
- Get a flu vaccine. Getting a flu vaccine every year is the best way to stay ahead of the flu. Doctors recommend flu shots for everyone over six months old, and special high-dose vaccines are available for adults 65 and older. While the best time to get vaccinated is before the end of October, it isn’t too late to protect yourself and your family. Because the vaccine needs some time to provide full protection, the sooner the better! While you’re at it, think about getting the COVID vaccine or booster, too.
- Practice good hygiene. All those things they told you when you were a kid – cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you sneeze, wash your hands with soap and water (or use hand sanitizer), and don’t touch your eyes, nose and mouth with your hands – are all still true today. Good hygiene can keep you healthy.
- Keep surfaces clean. Flu viruses can live on surfaces for up to 48 hours. If someone near you is sick, clean surfaces with bleach, hydrogen peroxide, detergent or alcohol to stop the spread.
- Avoid contact with people who are sick. We’ve all been there. The person in the next cubicle is coughing and sneezing, and a couple of days later we’re sick, too. Avoiding close contact with people who are sick can help to keep you well. Don’t be the person who exposes the whole office. If you’re sick, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (without fever reducing drugs).
- Consider wearing a mask. People feel strongly about masks these days, but it’s hard to deny that the last two flu seasons were some of the mildest in many years. Research has shown that masks decrease the number of droplets we breathe out. If a person with the flu wears a mask, they are less likely to spread the flu to others.
- Use antivirals if prescribed. There are drugs called antivirals that can lessen flu symptoms and shorten the length of time you feel sick. They must be prescribed by your doctor and are most effective when they’re taken within 48 hours of feeling sick.
What should I do if I get the flu anyway?
First, stay home. It will allow you to get the rest you need and keep others from getting sick. Some experts recommend contacting your doctor, who can prescribe antivirals to help reduce its severity. For mild cases, you can take care of yourself at home. For fever and muscle aches, take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Children and teenagers should NOT take aspirin for flu symptoms. Drink plenty of fluids and get plenty of rest. Most people will feel better in a week or so. But if you feel short of breath, or have a high fever, call your doctor right away.