COVID-19 has dominated the health care conversation in recent months, but we’re coming up on prime time for another potentially serious illness — the flu.
Influenza, also a highly contagious respiratory virus, affects millions of individuals every year. Many become seriously ill; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 140,000 and 810,000 people have been hospitalized with the flu each year since 2010. The flu is also responsible for between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths annually.
But there is good news. Unlike COVID-19, there is an annual vaccine that protects against the flu. Even though these seasonal flu vaccines are not 100% effective against every strain, they greatly reduce the possibility of becoming ill, having severe complications and infecting others.
Flu viruses mutate from season to season. Forecasters monitor which strains are circulating in the Southern Hemisphere during its winter — usually an H1N1 strain, an H3N2 strain, and one or two B strains — and adjust the vaccine accordingly, explains Dr. Shalauta.
In 2020, the consequences of not taking precautions may be especially dangerous — you can become infected with both influenza and COVID-19 simultaneously. Though they have a few similar symptoms, they are each from a completely different family of viruses.
For people who have a high risk of complications, including those over age 65 and those with underlying conditions, it could be “potentially devastating,” Dr. Shalauta says. “Even for someone with moderate risk, if they got both the flu and COVID-19, I think there would be significant health consequences.”
In addition, patients requiring treatment for a flu that could’ve been prevented by vaccination may take up more of health care providers’ already strained time and resources.
“The potential to overwhelm the hospital system between influenza and COVID-19 is huge,” Dr. Shalauta says.
Luckily, some of the preventive measures we are already taking against COVID-19 can also protect us from the flu — though the best defense is still the flu vaccine, which is expected to be available this August or September.
Dr. Shalauta recommends wearing a face mask in public, washing your hands as often as possible, refraining from touching your face, keeping high-contact surfaces clean and staying at home if you're sick.