This article was previously published on Atrium Health's Daily Dose
Protecting yourself during flu season starts with awareness. Atrium Health experts discuss the importance of getting vaccinated and practicing good health hygiene for your best protection.
The start, duration and severity of flu season can be a bit unpredictable every year, but there are things you can do now and throughout flu season to help prepare and protect yourself. From October 2021 to June 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that up to 13 million people contracted the flu, up to 6.1 million visited a health care provider for treatment, up to 170,000 were hospitalized and up to 14,000 died because of this seasonal flu. While those numbers are lower than years past, Dr. Katie Passaretti, vice president and enterprise chief epidemiologist at Atrium Health, is apprehensive about the upcoming flu season.
"Our COVID-19 numbers are on the down swing right now, but another surge could happen this fall," Passaretti says. "If you add the flu on top of a possible surge, it's going to mean even more hospitalizations. If we don't minimize that risk, we could overwhelm an already strained health care system."
Understanding This Year's Flu Conditions
This year (much like the last), COVID-19 restrictions have been loosened or lifted, kids are back in school and many businesses and communities have returned to pre-pandemic activities.
"Children seem to have weathered COVID-19 easier, with fewer long-lasting issues and lower death rates than we've seen in adults but not every child has a mild case," says Dr. Lyn Nuse, senior medical director of pediatric primary care at Atrium Health Levine Children's. "The same goes for flu. Some kids can't kick it quite like others – that's who we need to get vaccinated for."
As people reemerge after two to three years without typical social interaction and exposure to circulating germs, their immunity to things like the flu may have been impacted. Given these conditions, experts think we're going to experience a more severe flu season this year compared to last.
Health officials keep a close eye on other countries, such as Australia, because their season is ahead of ours in the United States. And the data there isn't a comforting prediction for us – Australia had its worst flu season in five years.
A few other factors to keep in mind are:
- Both the flu and COVID-19 can spread before a person is symptomatic.
- They share many of the same symptoms, even the loss of taste and smell, although it's more common with COVID-19.
- It's possible to have them at the same time or with another respiratory illness.
Protecting Yourself Against the Flu (and COVID-19)
Anyone who has ever had the flu knows it's no fun. Fortunately, you can take several proactive steps to lessen the chances of contracting the flu, which also help protect you against COVID-19.
Follow these tips for avoiding germs:
- If you're sick, stay home. "If a fever persists longer than 24 hours, see your primary care provider or pediatrician. Your provider will know if you need to be tested for both flu and COVID-19 to be sure you or your child is not contagious," Nuse says.
- Wear a mask and practice social distancing whenever respiratory virus levels in your community are high or if you have a high-risk medical condition.
- Frequently wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds.
- Don't touch your face or rub your eyes.
- Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. "Practice good etiquette by sneezing into your elbow, so that you're not spreading germs and exposing those around you," Passaretti says.
- Wipe down frequently used surfaces with anti-bacterial wipes.
- Get vaccinated for both flu and COVID in preparation for the upcoming season.
Help boost your immune system by incorporating these daily habits:
- Eat a healthy diet.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Get a good night's rest.
- Fit in some exercise several times a week.
- Destress whenever possible.
- Get the vaccine: "The CDC recommends getting a flu shot by the end of October to give your body time to develop a response to the vaccine before the virus starts circulating in your community," says Dr. Carmen Teague, internist at Atrium Health Primary Care Mecklenburg Medical Group. "If you're not already vaccinated against COVID-19, you can get both vaccines at the same time. We have both vaccines in our practices now and with one stop, you can be fully vaccinated against both flu and COVID-19."
Finding Care if You Get Sick with the Flu
If you have difficulty breathing or other life-threatening or serious symptoms, you should seek emergency care immediately. If you think you have the flu or COVID-19 and the symptoms are mild, contact your primary care provider or schedule a video visit to let a provider assess your symptoms and determine if testing or an office visit is needed.