Flu season is coming. While influenza circulates year-round, outbreaks are most common during the fall and winter, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Paired with the ongoing threat of the coronavirus pandemic, experts are warning that we're about to have a twindemic on our hands. Although it sounds pretty grim, there are ways we can get through this tumultuous winter unscathed.
"Our fear is that with COVID being in the community, we're going to see increased rates of hospitalizations," Michael Richardson, MD, a One Medical provider based in Boston, MA, tells Refinery29.
He says that's a real concern, because it looks like you can have both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time. "We don't know how frequently that happens, but as you can imagine having two very severe respiratory illnesses at once is not going to be good for your health," he says.
You could also develop the flu or COVID-19, start to recover, and then get the other virus on top of it. "That's going to be a double hit," Dr. Richardson explains. "We just don't know how well people are going to respond to a very severe virus when you're still recovering from another. That's our worry."
Differentiating between seasonal influenza and COVID-19 could be a struggle this upcoming flu season as well. The symptoms of the two illnesses are pretty similar, due to the fact that they both mainly attack our respiratory system.
"Flu symptoms can look like COVID symptoms: fever, body ache, cough, chest pain, and shortness of breath. COVID can present in the same way," says Dr. Richardson. "But COVID actually has a lot more symptoms with it as well, the random things like rashes, COVID toes, sore throat, heart issues, brain issues..." He notes that we're still learning about COVID-19 and all of its symptoms because it's so new. "It's going to be very hard to tease out what's flu and what's COVID," he says.
To stay safe, your best bet is to get your flu shot sooner rather than later, says Dr. Richardson. While it won't protect you against the coronavirus, it will help you to prevent getting certain strains of the flu and it will prevent you from getting more ill than you would have if you didn't have the shot.
"If we can prevent at least one of these viruses, we're going to significantly decrease the impact of these respiratory diseases during this season," he says. And Dr. Richardson notes, the flu shot will not give you the flu: "I can't say that enough." (This is a myth that pops up just about every flu season, but this year it's especially critical to bust it. Everyone who can must get the shot. It's part of our civic duty to keep ourselves and each other safe.)
Besides popping out to get your flu shot, continue practicing all of the precautions you have been since coronavirus landed in the U.S.: social distancing, wearing a mask, and practicing hand hygiene. "Just getting the flu shot doesn't mean you can walk around not wearing a mask and not social distancing," he says. "These are all tools that, when working together, can significantly reduce the population's risk at contracting these two viruses."
And if you do develop any flu-like (or COVID-like) symptoms, behave as if it were COVID, even if you get back a negative COVID test. "Just because you have a negative test doesn't mean it's not there," Dr. Richardson says. Call your doc — unless you develop symptoms like shortness of breath, in which case you should head to a hospital or health center. They'll most likely recommend that you stay at home and quarantine. That's because even if it is the flu, the last thing you want is to be out spreading the illness at a time when so many people are so vulnerable. (Like with coronavirus, people with the flu are typically contagious before developing symptoms, so it's important to be extra-cautious.) Stay put, and let's all try to stay safe this season.