By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium

After two seasons of unusually low flu activity due to public restrictions caused by COVID, the 2022-2023 flu season was the deadliest in five years. According to Public Health Seattle King County, a total of 262 Washingtonians died from the flu, including 257 adults and five children, marking a tenfold increase compared to the 2021-2022 flu season. Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that as many as 640,000 flu hospitalizations and 57,000 flu deaths occurred between October 1 and April 29, 2023.

“The flu is never the same every year, but we usually see anywhere between 70 and 300 deaths a year in Washington from the flu,” says Danielle Koenig, an Influenza Subject Matter Expert with the Department of Health. “We have been collecting data on deaths since 2009, and in that time, there have only been two years with more deaths than this year.”

“And even though it is kind of a return to what we had before COVID, it is also quite high,” Koenig added.

Health professionals emphasize that the flu and the common cold are two different illnesses often mistaken for one another. The main difference is that, unlike the flu, the common cold is usually not life-threatening.

“There is quite a bit of difference between the cold and flu,” says Danielle Koenig, an Influenza Subject Matter Expert with the Department of Health. “Colds are typically mild, and although they may not be enjoyable, they are not typically life-threatening.”

“The common cold is caused by a few different types of viruses, and you may experience coughing, sneezing, and a stuffy head,” she added. “On the other hand, the flu is a serious and deadly disease caused by the influenza virus. It affects the lungs and respiratory system, and symptoms can include fever, body aches, headaches, sore throat, and fatigue. Symptoms can be much worse if you haven’t received a flu shot this season.”

“The flu can also cause serious complications such as pneumonia or difficulty breathing, leading to hospitalization. Tens of thousands of people die from the flu in the United States every year,” Koenig adds.

According to medical experts, getting vaccinated each year is the best way to avoid getting sick with the flu. This year’s flu vaccine reduced the risk of influenza A-related hospitalization among children by nearly three-quarters and among adults by nearly half, according to the CDC. Despite the vaccine’s effectiveness, flu vaccination rates have decreased nationally in certain groups. Flu vaccination rates for children dropped by more than 6%, and rates for pregnant individuals decreased nearly 15% compared to pre-pandemic rates.

“While respiratory illness precautions such as masking and social distancing helped keep the number of flu cases low during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s especially important now, as most of us are around other people again, to get a flu vaccine every year,” said Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH, Secretary of Health. “The flu vaccine is your best protection against this serious disease. Even if you do get the flu, if you’ve been vaccinated, typically your illness is milder, and you are less likely to require hospitalization.”

Practicing healthy habits such as frequent handwashing, staying home when sick, and wearing masks in crowded spaces also help prevent the spread of the flu. These precautions protect individuals in our community who are most likely to be affected by severe flu disease, including:

• People over age 65.

• People who are immunocompromised.

• Children under age five.

• Pregnant people.

• People with chronic health conditions.

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