Spoiler alert: worrying isn’t one of them. Read on to find out what you can expect this flu season, and what you can do about it.
Why is this year’s flu season expected to be worse than years past?
While the world was combating COVID-19, the flu all but disappeared. Why? It seems to be a combination of factors.“In large part, flu was crowded out by the highly infectious and prevalent COVID viruses. The low rates of flu left a greater than normal percentage of people with low immunity to flu viruses, and thus more susceptible than usual to flu infection,” says Robert W. Amler, MD, MBA, dean of New York Medical College’s School of Health Sciences and Practice.
It turns out, the safety measures many people took to avoid COVID-19, such as social distancing, wearing masks, and frequent hand washing also protected them from the flu. Now that more people are taking fewer precautions in their daily life—like going to places where crowds gather and wearing masks less—viruses are rebounding.
And then there’s that reliable flu trendsetter, Australia. The southern hemisphere just went through its winter flu season, and it was a whopper. “Australia just had a particularly bad flu season. It would be surprising if we didn’t mimic their experience,” says Charles Bailey, MD, medical director for infection prevention at Providence Mission Hospital and Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Southern California.
When does flu season usually start, and when will it peak in the U.S.?
Experts shy away from predicting in advance exactly when the peak month for flu will be, or how bad the overall season will be. “We can’t predict the future. Only looking back can we take stock of how bad flu season was, compared to prior ones,” says Dr. Bailey.
Flu viruses remain active year-round but circulate primarily during fall and winter. In the U.S., October is when flu season traditionally starts and continues through May. This year, higher-than-usual flu activity in the U.S. was reported around six weeks earlier than usual, primarily in the southeast and south-central states.
The peak month for flu is calculated annually, after the fact. It’s based on the number of respiratory tests that come back positive for flu during flu season. In years past, flu activity has peaked most often from December through February. According to CDC records kept from 1982 to 2022, February typically has the most peaks, followed by December, and then January.
Given this year’s early surge, it’s possible the peak will come earlier than usual. However, Dr. Amler warns that the flu is highly unpredictable. “Trying to ‘time’ your vaccination with the peak of flu season is not a wise gamble, in my opinion. The key is to get vaccinated as soon as feasible, and that goes for your friends and loved ones as well. Even if a particular year’s vaccine is not perfect, you remain fully susceptible to flu and its serious complications until you get that jab,” he says.
Vaccination is your best bet for avoiding the flu
There are two types of flu viruses – type A and type B. Flu viruses change over time, so there are also multiple subtypes of each. This year’s vaccine targets the predominant strains already seen circulating in the southern hemisphere. “Even if you’ve had the flu already this year, get vaccinated. You may not be immune to other circulating strands,” says Dr. Bailey.
Everyone who is eligible for the flu shot should strongly consider getting it, no matter their personal risk level. Of course, some people are more vulnerable than others to severe complications. “In most flu outbreaks, the greatest risk for serious illness is among older adults, pregnant persons, and people with underlying conditions comprising their immune systems. If that includes you, or others you care about, get the flu vaccine,” says Dr. Amler.
Babies under six months old aren’t eligible for the flu shot. If you have a little one in tow, rely on protective measures to keep them safe. This includes keeping them away from sick people, and frequent hand washing.
Other flu-busting tips to practice
Dr. Bailey stresses the use of proactive steps that support immune health, like eating well-balanced meals and getting enough sleep, at all times of the year, but especially when flu season starts.
In addition to vaccination, use these tips from Dr. Amer to avoid the flu:
- Avoid contact with sick people
- Wear a face covering in crowds, especially if you might be in close contact with people who are sick
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue or your upper sleeve
- Discard tissues right away after use
- Avoid coughing or sneezing into your hand
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water—at least 20 seconds
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
- Take antiviral medications if your doctor prescribes them
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