We’re approaching one of the most critical periods in public health for local residents.
No, I’m not talking about the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m referring to something perennial, sort of traditional and now often overlooked — the flu season.
It may seem a bit strange for me, a physician with 25 years of practice in family medicine, to say this, but the pandemic has had a positive effect — at least when it comes to “normal” seasonal influenza. Amid the devastating swirl of COVID-19, the widespread protective actions like wearing a mask, staying home, social distancing and hand-washing have contributed to an encouraging trend: a decline in 2020-21 flu incidence.
As you may know, flu viruses are constantly changing and it’s not unusual for new flu viruses to appear each year.
In addition, like with COVID-19, certain people — including adults older than 65, pregnant women and adults with chronic health conditions — are at higher risk of developing serious complications from the flu, resulting in hospitalizations or, sadly, even death.
The seasonal flu and COVID-19 are contagious illnesses that affect the respiratory system.
Despite their similarities, COVID-19 and influenza are caused by different strains of virus and are different in many ways.
For example, compared to the flu, COVID-19 can take longer to show symptoms, can be contagious for longer and, unfortunately, can spread more easily.
As we saw throughout allergy season, symptoms common to allergies can be mistaken for COVID and vice-versa.
Similarly, there are signs and symptoms that COVID-19 and influenza share, such as fever, cough and a loss of taste or smell. These symptoms can vary in severity, ranging from no symptoms to severe symptoms. Because the symptoms can be similar for both viruses, testing is needed for a proper diagnosis.
That’s why it remains important to get one of the FDA-licensed influenza vaccines produced annually and widely available.
Some may wonder, if they are vaccinated for COVID-19, do they still have to get a flu shot? Yes. The COVID-19 vaccine will not protect a person from influenza.
Also, people may ask that if they’ve already had COVID-19, then can they still get the flu? Also yes; people can be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 and influenza at the same time and present symptoms of both.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, everyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine every season, ideally by the end of October.
Simply stated, flu vaccines help reduce the burden of flu illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths on the health care system.
Being proactive about staying healthy for yourself and your family is important. That includes following general safety tips to help reduce the risk of catching or spreading the flu, such as washing your hands often with soap and water, avoiding close contact with people who are sick and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
Another important way to be proactive is to discuss health-care options with your primary care physician, and why getting the flu shot can be critical to health.
(Dr. Michael Bergeron is a family-practice physician and the senior medical director for Optum in Rio Rancho.)