The flu has become much less common over the past two years, in large part due to precautions taken by the public during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. While flu season is difficult to predict, experts expect a comeback this fall.
“Predictions about the severity of the upcoming flu season are based on viral activity in the southern hemisphere,” said Dr. Christopher Penn, infectious diseases physician at LMH Health’s Internal Medicine Group. “Australia has had a particularly difficult year related to influenza infections, so we expect to see something similar in the United States.”
We are already seeing an increase 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 stop wearing masks, it will lead to more cases of the flu and other respiratory viruses.
“There’s a chance we’re going to see what’s called a ‘twindemic,’ with high flu rates and a surge in COVID-19 cases,” Penn said. “This is an ongoing problem as we are already seeing co-infections with COVID-19 and RSV in children.”
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“Many of the typical flu symptoms overlap with other viral respiratory diseases, including COVID-19,” Penn said. “General aches and pains, fever and cough are the most common symptoms and are usually more severe than the typical seasonal cold.”
If you have symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor. You may need to get tested for both the flu and COVID-19. Penn said it’s best to first see your GP or an outpatient clinic if you don’t have a GP.
“By all means, call the clinic before you head out so you can let them know you have symptoms,” Penn said.
Avoid the emergency room unless you have severe symptoms, including:
• Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
• Skin or lips with a bluish tint
• Pain or pressure in your chest or abdomen
• Sudden dizziness or frequent dizzy spells
• Severe or persistent vomiting
The flu can be difficult to cope with, especially for older adults and young children. With simple measures you can help protect yourself and relieve the health system this autumn and winter.
Penn said it’s important to practice good hand hygiene, wear a mask and get plenty of sleep. You should also stay at home if you feel sick.
But one of the most important things you can do now to prevent disease is getting the flu vaccination.
“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 bivalent COVID-19 booster, so you can get both at the same time,” Penn said.
Chris Lawrenz, LMH Health’s pharmacy director, said that while vaccines can’t prevent all cases of the flu, they do make it less likely that you’ll get seriously ill.
“Just 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 could still be attacked by the virus, but the risk of hospitalization and serious illness is greatly reduced.”
Many people who are at higher risk of getting the flu or having serious complications are not getting enough vaccinations. This includes patients and healthcare workers in long-term or nursing care, adults aged 65 and over, and adults of any age with certain underlying medical conditions.
The CDC’s most recent available data from the 2020-21 influenza season showed a vaccination coverage of:
• Approximately 41% among non-Hispanic Black adults and Hispanic adults
• Approximately 51% of adults aged 18 to 64 have diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, kidney disease or cancer
• Approximately 75% in adults aged 65 and over
• Approximately 76% of all health workers
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 it’s not contagious,” she said. “You may experience side effects such as a headache, muscle aches, or low-grade fever, but that doesn’t mean you have the flu.”
After the vaccination you will be well protected against the flu in about two weeks. The flu shot offers protection for four to six months, although the duration can vary and depends on the strength of your immune system.
You can get a flu vaccine from your general practitioner, the Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health Service, and many local pharmacies. Visit Vaccines.gov to find a location near you.
“Getting the flu shot is a safe and easy way to do your part to fight the flu. Do this to protect yourself, your loved ones and the community,” Lawrenz said.
— Autumn Bishop is Marketing Manager and Content Strategist at LMH Health, a major sponsor of Journal-World’s health division.