You probably didn’t hear too much about the flu season last year, since the COVID-19 pandemic took the spotlight from the usual fall and winter viruses. But while you may still be focused on the coronavirus (as you should be), flu season is fast approaching.
Below, experts share their predictions for the flu season, how your immune system may be affected and what to do to stay as healthy as possible:
Flu rates will be higher this season
That’s mainly because flu activity was unusually low last year. 2020 saw the lowest rate of flu hospitalizations since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began collecting the data in 2005. Only one pediatric death was reported, compared to 199 in the 2019-2020 flu season.
“In my own practice, I did not see as many flu cases last year as I normally would have,” said Ada Stewart, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians and a family physician with Eau Claire Cooperative Health Centers in Columbia, South Carolina. “There are a number of reasons why this may have been, but things like wearing a mask, social distancing, practicing good hand-washing hygiene and staying home when feeling ill all likely had a profound impact on the past flu season.”
Our germ avoidance over the last year won’t make us more susceptible to the flu
“It’s true that as the immune system is exposed to bacteria and viruses, it learns to better fight diseases,” said Norman Moore, director of scientific affairs for infectious diseases in Abbott’s Rapid Diagnostics business. “But there is no evidence to suggest that the public health measures many Americans adopted during this pandemic will make us more vulnerable to viruses like the flu.”
Instead, think of all that social distancing as a pause for our immune systems to learn new ways of defending ourselves rather than a step back, Moore said.
The one social distancing disadvantage that may affect your likelihood of getting the flu? If you’re social distancing by avoiding regular appointments with your health care providers. Stewart said those who may have canceled nonurgent medical visits last year because of the pandemic and who remain wary about stepping into the office or a pharmacy to get the flu vaccine are doing more harm than good when it comes to protecting themselves and others.
The flu season may not be a season at all
“Respiratory infections spread through the air by coughing and those who don’t wash their hands often and touch their face, letting the virus enter through the mouth or nose,” Stewart said.
So as restrictions around masking and social distancing eased up this summer, the opportunity for germs to spread increased, which likely created flu cases in the months of June, July and August.
While the flu virus circulates more freely in low humidity, making indoor winter months key breeding ground, it is possible to get the flu any time of the year. Because of this, Stewart said flu vaccines roll out as early as mid-September, which may seem premature to some people but it’s a crucial time to get vaccinated if you’re able to.
Figuring out if you have the flu may be tricky
Because the flu and COVID-19 have a similar set of symptoms ― including fever, chills, cough, fatigue and body aches ― self-diagnosing when you’re not feeling well may be an impossible feat.
One of the differentiating factors between the two, according to the World Health Organization, is the serial interval (the time between successive cases) of each virus. But even that is hard to pinpoint if you don’t know where you may have contracted the virus from. Symptoms for COVID-19 take around five or six days to appear, while those of the flu virus emerge by day three or so on average.
“Even if you’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19 and the flu, determining the source of your illness is crucial,” Moore said. “If you have severe flu symptoms and/or are immunocompromised, speak to your health care provider about getting tested for the flu right away. Anti-viral flu treatments work best within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. If you’re experiencing symptoms or have been exposed to COVID-19, a rapid at-home test or a clinical molecular test are the best ways to rule out a viral infection.”
There’s one major key to strengthening your immune system against the flu
“The immune system gets stronger with a flu vaccine,” Stewart said. “Plus, because the immunity from the flu shot wanes after a year in addition with flu variants changing season over season, it’s important to stay on top of getting a yearly flu shot.”
Both Moore and Stewart agreed that while predicted flu rates may skew higher this year, the No. 1 thing you can do to protect yourself is to get the flu vaccine.
“Getting an annual flu shot is the single most effective way to protect yourself from the flu,” Moore said. “A flu shot will not protect against COVID-19, but it has many other important benefits, including reducing severe flu illness and hospitalization, which can help lessen the burden on the health care system during the pandemic.”