As if we didn’t have enough public health concerns right now, cold and flu season is coming up.
We generally think of flu season as a normal part of life ― but there’s nothing normal about what’s happening this year. The coronavirus pandemic isn’t going away in the next few months, which means we’ll be dealing with COVID-19 alongside the other viruses and bacteria that appear in the chillier months.
So what happens when we have to deal with both at the same time? What can we do to prepare? Below, we spoke to experts about what they believe we’ll see when flu season hits the U.S. this fall and winter.
Let’s start with the good news: Flu rates overall might go down
Those vital health measures we’re taking to prevent COVID-19? Yeah, they really do work ― even beyond the coronavirus.
“Data from countries which would normally experience the flu season earlier (countries in the southern hemisphere) are seeing record low rates of the flu,” Kavita Patel, HuffPost’s medical contributor and a practicing internal medicine physician in Washington, D.C., wrote in an email. “More people are staying home, washing their hands and wearing masks. So it is possible we will see similarly low rates if we continue those important precautions.”
Some age groups may be more at risk for the flu because there could be lower rates of vaccination
Patel is worried that not as many people will proactively get a flu vaccine this year, so they can avoid medical centers during the pandemic. And that can put certain groups at risk.
“People might be reluctant” to go to the pharmacy or a doctor’s office, she said. “We know that people over the age of 65 as well as under the age of 2 are incredibly vulnerable to getting really sick from the flu ― including dying. ... We could see an increase of cases in those categories.”
People’s anxiety will continue to increase
A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a large increase in mental health problems during the pandemic. Experts predict this issue will only continue as we go into winter, especially with fewer social options and the stress of avoiding potential illness rises again.
“It is no surprise to anyone that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing a mental health crisis,” Cara Pensabene, medical director at EHE Health and an internal medicine specialist, told HuffPost. As flu season approaches, “there will be increased amount of anxiety and stress amongst patients.”
Many will probably confuse flu and COVID-19 symptoms
“Many COVID-19 symptoms overlap with influenza symptoms including fever, chills, shortness of breath, fatigue, runny/stuffy nose, headache, muscle pain or aches and/or sore throat,” Pensabene said. “We will see many patients who may not otherwise seek medical advice or treatment for a common cold or the flu now turning to their healthcare providers for reassurance and help differentiating between the common cold, influenza, and COVID-19.”
If you’re in this camp, Pensabene said there’s one major differentiator between the flu and many COVID-19 cases: “One key symptom that is present with COVID-19 ... is the loss of taste and smell.”
But never hesitate reaching out to your doctor when you’re sick; it doesn’t matter if it’s a cold, the flu, COVID-19 or anything else that’s making you feel unwell.
The spread could continue to affect businesses, travel and more
Over the summer, we’ve been able to get outside and generally keep our distance from others while going to restaurants, the beach and more. (Of course, being outside isn’t a complete safeguard against COVID.) In the winter, that’s obviously harder. There are fewer outdoor activities, which could lead to more people doing things indoors, which could potentially increase transmission rates, as both COVID-19 and the flu tend to spread more inside when people are in closer contact.
“Influenza and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses [that] spread from person to person, between people who are in close contact with one another (within 6 feet), and mainly by droplets,” Pensabene said.
While we don’t know yet how exactly this might play out, we could see closings or more precautions required for businesses, restaurants and more. We could also see some more travel restrictions, Pensabene said.
Hospitals could get crowded again if people are too lax
By cold and flu season, we’ll have spent the majority of 2020 in a pandemic and a lot of that time indoors. This could lead to some serious fatigue. But if people don’t wear masks, practice social distancing, wash their hands or get flu shots ― basically if we get too secure and start throwing caution to the wind ― we could wind up with more severe illnesses.
“Hospitals tend to go from ‘normal’ to ‘overwhelmed’ pretty quickly,” Patel said. “That’s because of our ‘fee for service’ reimbursement system where hospitals have to try and stay pretty full (like a hotel) in order to keep the business running.”
Add carelessness, a pandemic and flu season to that and, “presto, you have a problem,” she added.
Here’s how to protect yourself during flu season this year
Want to do your part to stay healthy and make sure this isn’t the winter from hell? Number one, get your flu shot.
It’s essential to get a flu vaccine every year, but especially this year. Getting the vaccine isn’t just about protecting yourself from illness; it also protects other people who are more susceptible and those who may not be able to medically receive the vaccine.
“Simply put, get your flu shot and tell your family and friends and neighbors to get one,” Patel said. “Pharmacies can give them. Chances are your employer might also offer them. Get them, get them, get them. And remember, the flu shot doesn’t mean you won’t get the flu, but that you might get a less severe version. And you are playing your part in helping our entire country be protected through herd immunity.”
Pensabene also stressed the importance of knowing your own personal risk when it comes to both illnesses.
“We know that either one of these respiratory viruses can be dangerous for individuals with high risk conditions, and the combination of two could be fatal,” she said. “Schedule your physical examinations and your flu shots, and while you are there, talk to your doctor about your medical conditions to understand and begin reducing your vulnerability. Whether or not you are in a high-risk category, everyone needs to take steps to protect themselves and others from catching or spreading COVID-19.”
The final thing you can do? Prepare to keep doing what you’re doing now.
“Buckle up, it could be a bumpy ride,” Patel said. “I will be wearing my mask and you should too. And wash your hands, and stay 6 feet away.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.