Stay Well This Winter
Expert advice to help you avoid COVID-19, colds, and flu this season
Last year, as Americans facing the threat of COVID-19 hunkered down and masked up, the flu seemed to go into hibernation.
At the height of a typical flu season, up to one visit in every 20 to emergency departments is for the illness. But during the most recent flu season, it accounted for less than one of every 1,000 ER visits.
Experts expect that the flu will make a comeback this winter, circulating along with other seasonal respiratory viruses as well as the coronavirus. Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself and your family.
What to Expect
Influenza is a notoriously difficult virus to predict. The past year with fewer cases means there may be a lower level of immunity in the general population, says Lynnette Brammer, an epidemiologist in the influenza division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This may affect children more than adults, because adult immune systems have had decades of exposure to different flu viruses.
On top of that, COVID-19 will still be with us, especially because new and more contagious variants of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) are continually emerging. So it’s possible we may see both the flu and COVID-19 spreading at the same time, a situation feared by some scientists last year.
“It really comes down again to behavior” and whether people continue taking the steps to avoid respiratory diseases that so effectively limited the spread of flu last season, says Sarah Cobey, PhD, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago.
Your Vaccine Checklist
Consider vaccines as your first line of defense. They’re not available for all seasonal respiratory viruses, including many that cause the common cold. But you can be vaccinated against two of the riskiest viruses that will be circulating, influenza and SARS-CoV-2.
Other Important Steps
With COVID-19, the flu, and colds likely to circulate together this winter, you’ll need to practice some additional virus-fighting habits.
Hang onto your mask. Whatever the current rules are where you live, remember that wearing a mask can help protect you from COVID-19—including breakthrough infections—and may shield you from other respiratory viruses. (Even with a mask, keep a distance from anyone coughing or sniffling.)
While the flu can spread through surfaces and large droplets (as from a sneeze), it can also be transmitted via small particles in the air, just like COVID-19. The CDC doesn’t actively recommend mask use for preventing the flu, but if you have any respiratory symptoms or are headed into a crowded environment—an airplane, a busy store, a big event—wearing a mask is a reasonable precaution to take, says Seema Lakdawala, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, who studies flu transmission. That’s especially true if you’re at higher risk for severe disease because of your age or an underlying condition.
Wash your hands. Cleaning your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds helps prevent a wide range of diseases, not only those caused by respiratory viruses. When you don’t have access to a sink, use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.
Stay home when you’re sick. Many people developed at least one very good habit during the pandemic: staying home the minute they had any respiratory symptoms, Lakdawala says. That meant not going to work, visiting friends, or even stopping in a store. This probably helped limit the transmission of many viruses in addition to SARS-CoV-2, she adds.
If You Get Sick
If you start to notice symptoms of any viral illness—fever, cough, chills, runny nose, congestion—see a doctor right away, either in person or via a telehealth service. The flu, COVID-19, and colds can cause similar symptoms, and a prompt diagnosis is important.
If you have the flu, antiviral medications can help reduce the severity of symptoms, but meds are most effective if you start taking them within two days of noticing the first signs. Early treatment with monoclonal antibodies and other medication may improve your prognosis if you have COVID-19. Early testing is also important so that you can isolate yourself if you have the disease.