After everything we’ve seen so far this year, it should come as no surprise that we’re heading into an insane 2020 flu season too. What makes this year’s flu different, and possibly more dangerous, is that we’re still battling a global pandemic, says Dr. Wesley Long, Houston Methodist’s medical director of clinical microbiology.  

With multiple strains and spreading patterns, the flu can be pretty darn irregular during the best of years—we all know someone who’s gotten a flu shot and then came down with it anyway. But this year those uncertainties are being pushed to the extreme thanks to Covid-19, which affects the same parts of the body as the flu. “While it is important to get a flu shot every year, this year it is particularly important because we want to preserve our capacity in the health care system to treat routine patients as well as those with Covid-19,” Long says. 

As Houstonians weigh their options about getting the shot, we sat down with Long to learn more about this unpredictable flu season. 

What is the Flu?

Influenza, commonly called the flu, is a highly contagious respiratory virus that infects the nose, throat, and, sometimes, the lungs. The severity of the illness changes from person to person, with cases ranging from mild to severe, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, general symptoms include fever (or feeling feverish/chills); a cough; a sore throat; runny or stuffy nose; muscle or body aches; headaches; and fatigue. The flu can last from a few days to almost two weeks, but people can develop complications, such as pneumonia, which can be life-threatening and require hospitalization.

Flu season typically begins in October and runs through March; however, cases have been known to pop up in April and May, too, according to the Houston Health Department. “Although some years it can start a little earlier or persist a little longer,” Long notes. 

Covid vs. the Flu

Although Covid is still fairly new, doctors have seen several overlapping symptoms, including fever; cough; shortness of breath or difficulty breathing; sore throat; and muscle pain or body aches, among others. However, unlike the flu, Covid-19 can cause changes in or loss of taste or smell. “Once flu season starts, we may need to test people for flu and Covid both to determine the best course of treatment,” says Long. 

Both viruses can spread from person-to-person contact, and you can still spread either virus even if you never developed symptoms. However, Long says, the coronavirus has produced a bit of silver lining: People are already social distancing, practicing good hygiene habits, and wearing face masks to protect against Covid-19. Those same habits can also help stop the spread of flu. “That, combined with an increase in flu vaccination, should help keep this year’s flu season under control.”

Getting the shot

Since flu season typically begins in the fall, Long says the middle of September is a perfect time to get your vaccination. “It’s never too late to get the flu shot, but you want to try to get one in the fall to protect you through the season,” Long says. “Don’t wait until you’re seeing friends and coworkers becoming sick with flu to get the shot.” Long says that most pharmacists can give you a flu shot as well as some other vaccinations, depending on your age. You can also likely get one from your internist or family doctor. The Houston Health Department is offering flu shots at its health centers. Just remember, the vaccine takes around two weeks to take full effect, adds Long, so don’t wait too long.

I got my flu vaccine, but I think I’m sick anyway. Now what?      

Contact your health care provider as soon as you suspect you have the flu, Long says. From there, your doctor can help you determine if your symptoms are severe enough to warrant an E.R. visit. “There are antivirals that can help shorten the illness, but they need to be started soon after symptom onset,” he says. Also, make sure you know if you’re in a high-risk category for developing serious flu complications. Individuals in these categories include the elderly, people with certain underlying health conditions, and pregnant individuals, according to the CDC.

Other steps to stay healthy

The best practices that help us avoid spreading the flu are the same we’ve learned to fight the spread of Covid-19, Long says. In case you need a refresher: Wear your mask when in public, keep social distancing, wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap (or use an alcohol hand sanitizer), and, of course, stay home if you’re sick and for 24 hours after your fever breaks. “It is important for all of us to remember that Covid-19 is still present in the community, still circulating,” Long says. “We still need to be vigilant and keep our guard up.”

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