Influenza, also known as the flu, is one of the most common viral infections. For most people, it will resolve on its own, but for some, it can result in severe complications, hospitalization or even death. Below, Rhonda Sharp, MD, PPG – Family Medicine, discusses the importance of the flu vaccine and the steps we can all take to stay healthy this season.
When is the peak season for influenza?
Influenza viruses are active year-round within the United States, but the flu is most common during the fall and winter months. In Indiana, February and March are usually the hardest hit months when we see peak flu activity. There have been times when the flu presented earlier, around November and December, but in the last 10-20 years, it tends to occur later in the season.
Given the presence of COVID, are there any defining influenza characteristics that people should watch for this season?
Unfortunately, there are more similarities than differences between influenza and COVID-19. The similarities can include:
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Body aches
- GI symptoms (children are more likely to exhibit than adults)
Some people with influenza and/or COVID-19 can have severe complications, while others experience only mild symptoms. For this reason, it can be challenging to distinguish between each virus based on symptoms alone, which is why testing is needed to differentiate between the two.
What can people do to prepare for the inevitability of flu season?
Getting the vaccine as early as possible is the best means of prevention and protection for yourself and your loved ones from the flu or serious complications. Also, don’t wait until we’re in the middle of flu season to get it, because it may be too late at that point.
Why is the flu vaccine so important?
For the most part, influenza is a preventable disease primarily due to the vaccines. The more vaccinated individuals, the less it will spread throughout the community, which means people have a considerably lower chance of contracting it. However, if you become ill with influenza, some studies have shown that the vaccine can reduce the severity of illness in vaccinated individuals who still get sick.
Additionally, the flu vaccine is recommended for anyone ages six months and up. However, seniors can receive a higher dose of the flu vaccine if they desire it. This is because older individuals tend to have more difficulty developing an immune response.
Do you think this will be a mild flu season compared to past years?
We can’t know for sure, but I can share some of the concerns from an infectious disease standpoint. Last year, for instance, we were all wearing masks and adhering to social distancing protocols, but this year, not so much. What does that mean? It means that we had almost no influenza last year. This is concerning because it makes us wonder if people will be more susceptible this time around. You see, when you become ill with influenza, your body develops some immunity to it. It may not encompass every strain, but every little bit helps. That's why getting the vaccine is so valuable. Even though it doesn't hit all the influenza strains, it can help protect you from contracting influenza or having a severe case.
Final thoughts regarding the current flu season and COVID-19?
I want people to realize that influenza can show up without warning, so it’s essential to prepare for it. This means if you haven’t already, get your flu shot as soon as possible. It’s a quadrivalent vaccine, so it covers four different influenza strains. And, as I said before, even if it doesn’t have the exact strain of what’s spreading this year, it will still help reduce the severity of illness. Furthermore, you can become infected with COVID-19 and influenza simultaneously, so protect yourself this season by getting both vaccines, one in each arm.