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COVID-19 may be the most prominent virus of concern in the U.S. now, but public health officials also are preparing for seasonal influenza. And indications are that it could be a different season than the U.S. experienced the past two years.
The Australian flu season, which typically runs May through September, already has exceeded its five-year average, particularly affecting children under age 5, according to a recent report.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. experienced a steep drop in influenza rates due to masking and social distancing measures. However, those practices have changed.
"Many have stopped masking," says Abinash Virk, M.D., an infectious diseases specialist at Mayo Clinic. "For the large part, we will see influenza reemergence in the winter. In comparison, in 2020 winter, when we were all masking and social distancing, there was literally no influenza. But now that has all changed."
Dr. Virk says that cases of influenza began to return as the masks came off. "We're going to get influenza this winter again, and people should seek out influenza vaccination when it becomes available in their local community," she says.
In this video, Dr. Virk talks about the 2022–2023 flu season:
Seasonal influenza, like COVID-19, is a contagious respiratory illness that disproportionately affects adults ages 65 and older. However, they are not the same viruses. The similarity and differences between the two viruses also mean it can be difficult to discern between them when symptoms overlap.
Testing helps limit the spread, but it is particularly important for people at risk of severe influenza or COVID-19 so that they can be treated with specific antiviral treatments for these viruses.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that those 65 and older receive higher-dose, including high-dose and recombinant vaccinations, or adjuvanted flu vaccinations over standard-dose flu vaccinations.
All people over 6 months are encouraged to get vaccinated for the flu when available in their local community. The CDC recommends that people are vaccinated for flu by the end of October to ensure they are fully vaccinated for the influenza season.
Along with vaccination, you can take these steps to protect yourself from influenza and other contagious viruses:
- Wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Use an alcohol-based sanitizer on your hands if soap and water aren't available.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
- Avoid crowds when flu is spreading in your area.
- Avoid being in close contact with others who are sick.
- Cover your mouth with a tissue or elbow when coughing or sneezing, and then wash your hands.
- Regularly clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces, such as counters, light switches or doorknobs. This can prevent the spread of infection from touching a surface with the virus on it and then your face.
- Practice good health habits. Get regular exercise, get enough sleep, drink plenty of fluids, eat a healthy diet and manage stress.
- Consider masking in crowded indoor locations, especially if you have risk factors for severe influenza or COVID-19.
If you become sick with the flu, you also can help prevent the spread of the flu by staying home and away from others. Stay home until your fever has been gone for at least 24 hours.
A flu shot doesn't protect people against getting infected with COVID-19. And getting vaccinated for COVID-19 doesn't protect people against getting the flu.
Currently, a combination vaccine against influenza and COVID-19 is not available, so it's best to have both vaccines to have protection against both diseases.