The flu has all but disappeared in the past 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 return this fall.
Dr Christopher Penn
“Predictions about the severity of upcoming flu seasons are based on virus activity in the southern hemisphere,” said Christopher Penn, MD, an infectious disease physician in the Internal Medicine Group at LMH Health. “Australia had a particularly difficult year related to influenza infections, so we expect to see the same in the United States.”
We are already beginning to see increases in flu activity in much of the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As more people relax their COVID-19 precautions and stop wearing masks, this will lead to a higher rate of illness due to the flu and other respiratory viruses.
“There is a possibility that we will see what is known as a ‘twin demic’, with high rates of influenza and an increase in cases of COVID-19,” explained Dr. Penn. “It is an ongoing concern, especially as we have already started to see co-infections with COVID-19 and RSV in children.”
watch out for symptoms
If you have a cough or feel a little pain, should you worry about having the flu? Could it be COVID-19?
“Many of the typical symptoms of the flu overlap with other viral respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19,” explained Dr. Penn. “Widespread pain, fever and cough are the most common symptoms and are often more severe than the typical seasonal cold.”
If you find that you are experiencing symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention. You may need to be tested for both the flu and COVID-19. But where should you go?
“The best place to start is with your primary care provider. If you don’t have one, there are several walk-in clinics in the area, like First Med,” said Dr. Penn. “In any case, make sure you call the clinic before you go in so you can let them know you have symptoms.”
Avoid the emergency department unless you are 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 dizziness
- Severe or persistent vomiting
The flu can be hard to control, especially for older adults and young children. You can help protect yourself while easing the burden on the health care system this fall and winter by taking a few simple steps.
Dr. Penn emphasized the importance of following guidelines about wearing a mask, practicing good hand hygiene, and getting enough sleep. You should also know your risk factors and if you feel bad, stay home. One of the most important actions you can take right now is to get vaccinated against the flu.
“We recommend getting a flu shot in October, but it’s not too late to get vaccinated and increase your protection against the virus. It can be given alongside the bivalent COVID-19 booster, so you can get both at the same time,” explained Dr. Penn.
Chris Lawrenz, director of pharmacy for LMH Health, agreed that getting a flu shot is key.
“Just like you wouldn’t play football without a helmet and protectors, you shouldn’t face the flu season without a vaccine,” he said. “Think of vaccines as your protective gear. You may still be dealing with the virus, but the risk of it causing hospitalization and serious illness is greatly reduced,” he said.
Unfortunately, people at higher risk of contracting a flu infection or serious complications are not adequately vaccinated. These include long-term or nursing care patients and staff, adults 65 and older, and adults of any age with certain underlying health conditions.
The most recent data available from the CDC for the 2020-21 influenza season shows vaccination coverage of:
- Approximately 41% among non-Hispanic Black (NHB) and Hispanic adults
- About 51% of adults ages 18 to 64 who have diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, kidney disease, or cancer
- About 75% among adults age 65 and older (69% NHB and 64% Hispanic)
- Approximately 76% among health care personnel in general
“The vaccine is made with an inactivated version of the flu virus, which means that it is not infectious. You may experience side effects like a headache, muscle aches, or a low-grade fever, but that doesn’t mean you have the flu,” he said.
Once you get vaccinated, you’ll have good protection against the flu in about two weeks. The flu vaccine provides protection for 4 to 6 months, although the duration can vary and depends on the strength of your immune system.
You can get a flu shot from your primary care provider, the Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health Department, and many local pharmacies. Visit vaccines.gov to find a location near you.
“Getting a flu shot is an easy and safe way to do your part to fight the flu. Do it to protect yourself, your loved ones and the community,” Lawrenz said.