The flu has been a lot less common over the last two years, due in large part to precautions taken by the public during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. While flu season can be hard to predict, experts expect it to make a comeback this fall.
“Predictions about the severity of upcoming flu seasons are made based on virus activity in the Southern Hemisphere,” said Dr. Christopher Penn, an infectious disease physician with LMH Health’s Internal Medicine Group. “Australia had a particularly difficult year related to influenza infections, so we expect to see much of the same in the United States.”
We’re already beginning to see increases in flu activity across much of the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As more people relax their COVID-19 precautions and discontinue wearing masks, this will lead to more cases of flu and other respiratory viruses.
“There’s a potential that we may see what’s been referred to as a ‘twindemic,’ with high rates of the flu and a spike in COVID-19 cases,” Penn said. “It’s an ongoing concern, especially as we’ve already started seeing co-infections with COVID-19 and RSV in children.”
If you’ve got a cough or feel achy, should you be worried that you’ve got the flu? Could it be COVID-19?
“Many of the typical flu symptoms overlap with other viral respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19,” Penn said. “Generalized achiness, fever and cough are the most common symptoms and are usually more severe than the typical seasonal cold.”
If you’re experiencing symptoms, it’s important to seek medical care. You may need to be tested for both the flu and COVID-19. Penn said it’s best to start by visiting your primary care provider, or a walk-in clinic if you don’t have a primary care provider.
“In either case, make sure you call the clinic before heading in so you can let them know you’re experiencing symptoms,” Penn said.
Avoid the emergency department unless you’re experiencing severe symptoms, including:
• Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
• Skin or lips with a bluish tint
• Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
• Sudden dizziness or frequent dizzy spells
• Severe or persistent vomiting
It can be difficult to manage the flu, especially for older adults and young children. You can help protect yourself and ease the burden on the health care system this fall and winter by taking some simple steps.
Penn said it’s important to practice good hand hygiene, wear a mask and get plenty of sleep. You should also stay home if you’re feeling ill.
But one of the most important actions you can take right now to prevent illness is to get the influenza vaccine.
“We recommend getting the flu vaccine in October, but it’s not too late to get one and increase your protection from the virus. It can be given along with the COVID-19 bivalent booster, so you can get both at the same time,” Penn said.
Chris Lawrenz, LMH Health pharmacy director, said that while vaccines can’t prevent all cases of the flu, they will make it less likely that you’ll get seriously sick.
“Much like you wouldn’t play football without a helmet and pads, you shouldn’t face the flu season without a vaccine,” she said. “Think of vaccines as your protective gear. You might still get tackled by the virus but the risk of it causing hospitalization and severe illness is greatly reduced.”
Many people at higher risk for flu infection or serious complications aren’t being adequately vaccinated. These include patients and health care personnel in long-term or nursing care, adults 65 and older and adults of any age with certain underlying health conditions.
The most recent data available from the CDC, from the 2020-21 influenza season, showed vaccination coverage of:
• Approximately 41% among non-Hispanic Black adults and Hispanic adults
• Approximately 51% of adults ages 18-64 who have diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, kidney disease or cancer
• Approximately 75% among adults 65 and older
• Approximately 76% among health care personnel overall
Lawrenz said the vaccine can have side effects, but there’s no way it can give you the virus.
“The vaccine is made with an inactive version of the flu virus, which means that it’s not infectious,” she said. “You may experience side effects like a headache, muscle aches or a mild fever, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got the flu.”
Once you get vaccinated, you’ll have good protection against the flu in about two weeks. The flu shot provides protection for four to six months, though the length can vary and depends on the strength of your immune system.
You can get a flu vaccine from your primary care provider, Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health and many local pharmacies. Visit vaccines.gov to find a location near you.
“Getting a flu vaccine is a safe, easy way to do your part to fight the flu. Do it to protect yourself, your loved ones and the community,” Lawrenz said.
— Autumn Bishop is the marketing manager and content strategist at LMH Health, which is a major sponsor of the Journal-World’s Health section.