As always, the approach of flu season carries a number of important questions: When should I get my flu shot? What else should I be doing to protect myself? When does flu season start, anyway?
To explain what you need to know as flu cases start to rise this fall, Texas A&M Today spoke with three experts: Martha Dannenbaum, MD, FACOG, director of Texas A&M’s Student Health Services; Jason McKnight, MD, clinical associate professor at the School of Medicine; and Andrea Mora, PharmD, clinical associate professor and vice chair of pharmacy practice at the Irma Lerma Rangel School of Pharmacy.
What should we expect as we head into this year’s flu season?
Dannenbaum: It is expected to be a more severe flu season based on what is being observed in the southern hemisphere. Australia has reported a significant increase in flu numbers compared to recent years. This is partially the result of the COVID years where individuals had less exposure to the circulating flu virus due to decreased gathering of people, shutdowns and masking. Without these exposures, the individual does not develop antibodies to some of the common viruses that circulate around the globe.
Are we already seeing an uptick of cases since fall began?
Mora: The number of positive influenza cases is significantly lower than what we observed during the surge in March and April, but in Texas there has been a slight increase in positive cases in the last several weeks, which is consistent with national reporting. In Texas, the percentage of specimens testing positive for influenza reported by hospital laboratories has increased. We can anticipate numbers to continue to increase and, historically, most seasons peak in February.
How does the continued spread of COVID-19 impact the outlook for this year’s flu season?
McKnight: Physicians and public health experts anticipate that COVID will continue to cause respiratory infections throughout this upcoming influenza season. We have seen cases where an individual is infected with both COVID and influenza at the same time, and this may put you at an increased risk of complications from either illness. However, each person’s response to the virus as well as their immune response is different, so some people may have only minimal or mild symptoms in the case of a coinfection. If people are willing to restart some degree of social distancing and mask wearing if we see an uptick in COVID cases, then I would hope this would help mitigate any increase in spread of influenza as well. Many of the things we have been preaching for almost three years (handwashing, social distancing when ill, mask wearing) will help prevent the spread of influenza just as it does for COVID.
Since COVID and flu symptoms are so similar, how can people tell if they have COVID or the flu?
Mora: It is difficult to tell the difference between COVID and influenza solely based on symptoms because the symptoms are so similar. In this case, testing is key. Testing can differentiate between the two and lead to patients receiving the appropriate treatment, if treatment is needed. It is even possible to have both infections at the same time, which is another reason why testing is key.
Dannenbaum: They need to test. At Student Health, we have a combined nasal swab test that detects COVID, influenza A & B and RSV (another common cause of flu-like illness). COVID and influenza have medical options for treatment depending on when the symptoms started and other personal risk factors for serious illness. It is best to test early on after the development of symptoms to have the most options available. This should be discussed with an individual’s physician or clinical provider to determine the best course of treatment.
When should people get their flu shots this year?
Mora: Influenza vaccines are generally recommended to be received in September or October and the strains included in this season’s vaccine are different from the last. If it is more convenient, you can absolutely get your influenza vaccine and COVID-19 bivalent booster at the same time. I did that last week and had two sore arms, but otherwise felt good.
Dannenbaum: Flu shots are available now and to get the most benefit from it an individual should get it by the end of October. But it is never too late to get it. The longer you wait though, the more likely you will be exposed and get the flu. It takes about two weeks for the body’s immune response to kick in after the shot so getting it earlier than the typical flu season peak is best. So far this year’s flu vaccine formulation is looking pretty good at preventing serious illness from the most common circulating flu viral types. It is important to remember that vaccines do not prevent 100% of flu and COVID cases. But they will reduce the severity of illness, often reduce the length of illness and definitely markedly reduce the chance of hospitalization and death from these conditions.
What additional steps can people take to keep themselves safe this flu season?
McKnight: Measures to prevent spread of respiratory illnesses including influenza are similar to those that we have been discussing since the COVID pandemic began. If you are feeling ill, remain at home and minimize exposure to individuals outside your household. Keep your hands clean, and minimize heavily crowded areas if local influenza activity is high. If you have symptoms of influenza and must leave your home, please wear a mask to help minimize transmission to those around you. Whether you believe your symptoms may be related to influenza or COVID, it is never a bad idea to check in with your physician to see if you may need testing, and if you might qualify for an oral medication to help with symptoms and to help prevent complications from those diseases.
At Texas A&M, students can receive a no-cost flu vaccine through Student Health Services, with appointments available at tx.ag/fluvaccine and additional information at flu.tamu.edu. Employees are invited to attend one of several vaccine clinics throughout the month of October, where they can be vaccinated against both flu and COVID-19.
This story was originally published in Texas A&M Today.