By Sam Antenucci
What’s the biggest health story of 2020? That’s an easy one. COVID-19 has overstayed its welcome, and it’s stubbornly sticking around. But guess what? Here comes fall and winter, and another health hazard looms on the horizon: seasonal influenza. Sure, flu viruses circulate every year, but it’s important to understand that you can contract COVID-19 and flu at the same time. So it’s especially important to take proper precautions to enjoy a healthy season this year.
The single most important protective step you can take now—before flu season is in full swing—is to make sure you’re vaccinated. Each year, a unique flu vaccine is developed by researchers and virologists after months of surveillance data review. They select the three or four viruses most likely to spread and among people during the coming season. Flu viruses are constantly changing, so the vaccine must also change annually.
The flu vaccine cannot cause flu. The vaccine itself typically contains a killed version of the virus that is used to train your white blood cells to recognize the prevailing flu viruses and kill them before they get the chance to take over and infect your healthy cells.
The vaccine is overwhelmingly safe and highly effective. It keeps millions of us out of bed each year. The CDC estimates that during 2018-2019, flu vaccination prevented an estimated 4.4 million illnesses, 2.3 million medical visits, 58,000 hospitalizations, and 3,500 deaths—all flu-related. And it’s especially important for kids to get the shot: Children ages 6 months up to their 5th birthday—even those who are healthy—are at high risk for serious flu complications simply because of their age.
With this in mind and the pandemic front and center, flu vaccination is critical—not only for your own health but also the health of the people you care about. The CDC recommends an annual flu shot for everyone 6 months of age and older, with rare exceptions. If you have severe, life-threatening allergies, or a condition that compromises your immune system, seek clearance from your doctor first.
Ways to Keep Flu at Bay
You can prevent the spread of influenza within your family and community by taking these small precautions:
• Wash your hands often; if soap and water are unavailable, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
• Avoid touching your face, eyes, nose, and mouth
• As always, maintain your social distancing practices. Wear a mask in public and keep at least six feet from others. If you’re feeling sick, stay home.
In addition to vaccination and safe hygiene practices, good health habits will fortify your body’s resistance to infection. A few tips:
• Turbocharge your diet with vegetables and nutrient-dense foods. (Need ideas? Check out these CDC Nutrition Guidelines.)
• Hydrate! Reach for a glass of water at regular intervals throughout the day.
• Try to maintain an exercise regimen—ideally, at least 30 minutes a day.
• Manage your stress. This is especially important during these unpredictable times. For some useful advice on stress management, see American Red Cross’s Coping with Stress.
• Get enough rest and sleep.
If you’re feeling ill, you might wonder whether you have the flu or another condition that mimics seasonal influenza. The pandemic complicates that uncertainty, so it’s especially important to observe how you’re feeling. If you get a lot sicker, consider getting a COVID test. The CDC notes that many flu symptoms are also common with COVID-19. These include…
• Fever (though not in every flu case)
• Sore throat
• Runny or stuffy nose
• Muscle aches, body aches
• Vomiting and/or diarrhea (more common in children)
The difference between COVID-19 and Influenza
The flu symptoms listed above can range from mild to severe. COVID-19, on the other hand, may bring symptoms that are more severe and cause serious illness. One symptom unique to coronavirus is a loss of taste and smell. If at any point your symptoms intensify and impact your ability to breathe, call your doctor and get a COVID test.
Caring for Someone with the Flu
If you’re in a multi-person household and someone becomes sick with any of the symptoms listed above, designate one person to look after him or her. Keep everyone’s personal items separate. Avoid sharing utensils, towels, clothes, blankets, sheets, or food. When cleaning up any bodily fluids, wear disposable gloves.
To learn more about keeping yourself safe during the pandemic and flu season, download one or more of the free Red Cross mobile apps from the Apple App Store or Google Play. For descriptions, just go to redcross.org, click on Get Help, and select Mobile Apps from the dropdown menu.
Keep the Faith!
Sure, 2020 has been a challenging year. The pandemic has caused stress and confusion for everyone. Don’t let it get the best of you! You are not alone. With sensible precautions, we can support one another and clear these hurdles together!
Lead Image description: A design with a mug, a box of tissues, some loose tissues, and a pair of glasses next to a red box with text that reads: Flu Safety Tips. Tips include – Handle your own belongings, Wash your hands often with soap and water, Carry hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial wipes with you.