Flu season is ramping up, folks. Cases are already “high” in certain parts of the US, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Southern regions are being hit the hardest right now, but influenza is gaining traction in most of the country.
Current hotspots include Washington, DC; New York City; Texas; Alabama; Tennessee; and South Carolina. William Schaffner, MD, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, tells SELF that it’s not entirely clear why flu cases initially took off in southern regions this year. “The flu season is fickle,” he says. “It’s not predictable where it will start.”
Cases in Washington, DC, and New York City may be more easily explained, since those are places people travel to and from often, Thomas Russo, MD, an infectious disease expert at the University of Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, tells SELF.
But the important thing to note regardless of where you live, Dr. Schaffner says, is that flu season is here, and it’s not going to stay contained, he explains: “It will get around in due course, and it’s starting very energetically.”
Understandably, we’ve all been pretty preoccupied with COVID-19—but the flu still poses a very real threat, especially when it’s circulating at the same time as COVID. According to data from 2010 to 2020, influenza causes anywhere between 9 million and 41 million illnesses in the US each year, per the CDC, depending on how rough the season is. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized and tens of thousands die from the virus annually. For high-risk individuals, like children, older folks, pregnant people, and those with certain underlying conditions, the flu can also cause complications that can land a person in the hospital, like pneumonia, severe dehydration, or even neurological issues.
The past two flu seasons have been surprisingly mild, largely because more people were masking up, social distancing, and practicing good hand hygiene, thanks to COVID-19, Dr. Russo says. But, given that mask guidelines are basically nonexistent in most parts of the country, that may not be how things shake out this year.
Optimists may find themselves thinking, Does the early start mean flu season will end sooner this year? Unfortunately, that’s not how infectious diseases work, Dr. Schaffner says. Instead, this early data only fuels experts’ recent warnings: We may be in for a particularly rough winter. “[These early cases] make it more likely that it could be a more serious flu season and that it could be more prolonged,” Dr. Schaffner says. He adds that this pattern mimics what happened this year in Australia, where the flu season just ended: “We’re starting to see influenza early just as our colleagues in the southern hemisphere saw,” Dr. Schaffner says.
So, consider this your reminder to schedule your flu shot—which experts recommend you get before the end of October—if you haven’t already. Remember, getting your flu vaccine isn’t just about protecting your health; it’s also a way to protect everyone in your community. Again, some people are more likely to develop severe disease from influenza, so getting vaccinated helps you protect loved ones, like baby cousins and grandparents—as well as your colleagues and essential workers in your community who may face a higher risk of getting really sick.
It’s also especially crucial to just be aware of any flu-like symptoms you’re experiencing, which can include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue, per the CDC. Sometimes, antivirals can help treat people with influenza, but early diagnosis is key here, Dr. Schaffner says. With this in mind, you should see a doctor if you start feeling really sick—especially if you take a rapid test at home and rule out COVID-19, he explains.
Lastly—and we can’t stress this one enough—consider masking up before you head into public spaces. “We’ve learned very definitively during COVID that wearing masks really does protect the most vulnerable people,” Dr. Shaffner says. “Plan to do that when flu strikes your community,” he adds. “It will help.”
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