Usually, flu season is fairly predictable. It generally runs from October through March, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses data from the previous year to determine which three or four A and B strains will likely circulate in the United States.
This year, however, flu season isn’t likely to be so run-of-the-mill.
The difficulty, says Dr. Laura Nicholson, Summit Medical Group Oregon (SMGOR) Internal Medicine Specialist, is that the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet under control. “The big question will be diagnosis of patients with cough and fever, she says. “Is this flu or is this COVID-19? And in children, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) can also cause similar symptoms.”
Whichever virus you might come down with, the best way to manage the upcoming cold and flu season is to understand and follow what we know works. “The medical community puts out guidelines because diseases will be there,” Dr. Nicholson says. “We need to be good stewards and follow them.”
There is a worry that a bad flu season occurring at the same time as a rise in COVID-19 cases could overwhelm our health care system. The good news is that in the southern hemisphere where the flu season is coming to an end now, the level of infection was far less than normal because people have been following recommendations to prevent spread of COVID-19 such as socially distancing, wearing masks, and hand washing. If we do the same, perhaps we may also have far fewer infections this fall and winter.
Help Prevent the Spread
Whether you’re worried about influenza or coronavirus, the rules remain the same. “Don’t underestimate the importance of handwashing,” Dr. Nicholson says. “That alone can reduce the prevalence in the community.” Anytime you are going to touch your face, have a meal, or return home, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. If soap and water is not available, use an alcohol-based sanitizer.
Wear a Mask
Until the COVID-19 pandemic is under better control, we should all be wearing a mask when we are around anyone other than our household members. This includes when we are at work, going grocery shopping, or visiting the doctor’s office. This is most important when we are indoors or even when we are outdoors if we cannot remain physically distanced from others.
Prepare ahead of time for at least one cold or flu. Stock up on supplies like:
- Cold medicines
- Fluids like soups and drinks rich in electrolytes
If you have any medical conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes, discuss which cold and flu medicines are safe for you ahead of time. And if you do get sick, don’t ignore your symptoms. If you feel unwell, make an appointment to see a doctor, either in person or virtually. There are antiviral treatments for influenza that may help you feel better more quickly and prevent spread to others—but if you wait until you are past early stages, the medications are less effective and you could put yourself at risk of needing to go to the hospital.
That doesn’t mean you need to run to the urgent care if you spike a fever or come down with a cough. Instead, take advantage of a telehealth visit for a quick checkup. The goal, Dr. Nicholson says, is to reduce your chances of being exposed to more disease while also preventing urgent cares from being inundated.
“This year, getting the flu vaccination is more important than ever,” says Dr. Nicholson. This will reduce your risk of catching the flu and developing symptoms that may make you worry that you have COVID-19.
Remember that, in general, it takes two weeks for antibodies to begin working after you’ve had the shot, so make sure to get it as soon as possible, to best protect yourself for the coming season.
Summit Medical Group Oregon flu shots will be available as of September 19th. Call your primary care provider to schedule an appointment or schedule through our patient portal.