Health experts are warning Americans to prepare for what could be an exceptionally severe flu season this fall and winter, as more people who have not built up immunity over the past few years begin to socialize again in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are two big reasons why more people could be susceptible to influenza this year. First, COVID-19 preventative measures, such as social distancing and the wearing of masks, have been all but forgotten by many. People are now more likely to come into contact with the flu virus this year than they did in 2020 or 2021.
Secondly, fewer people are likely to be immune from the flu virus this year because fewer people have gotten the flu over the last two years. The pandemic lockdown kept people at home, and everyone became much more vigilant about not contracting COVID, as well as colds and flus.
Peter Ashman, M.D, an otolaryngologist with ENT and Allergy Associates, believes that the general population has just not seen the same levels of exposure to the flu over the past two years. “As a population, everyone’s immunity to the flu has been lowered thanks to recent lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing,” he says. “When the flu virus returns, it’s probably going to be more contagious than in the past and have more opportunities to cause problems in otherwise healthy individuals.”
In a regular year, exposure to the influenza virus generates some herd immunity, as about 10 to 30 percent of people are exposed to influenza in a normal flu season. But fewer people were exposed in 2020 and 2021, resulting in a decline in natural immunity. For example, according to the CDC, pediatric flu deaths normally exceeded 100 every year before the pandemic. However, in the past two flu seasons, health experts have seen reported pediatric flu deaths fall to less than 40, with only one pediatric death confirmed in 2020. This decreased population immunity means that people are at a much higher risk of catching influenza, according to Ashman.
In preparation for the increasing spread of the virus, the physicians at ENT and Allergy Associates offer tips to help identify flu symptoms and prevent the spread of the virus.
Understanding the Flu
While early symptoms of the flu can mimic those of the common cold, the flu can come with additional, more dangerous symptoms. Symptoms of the common cold include sore throat, stuffy nose, sinus pain, and pressure. While this may feel like the flu, you actually do NOT have the flu unless you have a high fever (over 101.5 F degrees), body aches, a significant feeling of fatigue, sometimes nausea and vomiting, and often a significant sore throat. If you have a fever, then you are contagious and should limit contact with others and seek medical attention, as untreated symptoms can lead to more serious and lasting conditions, including sinusitis.
Vaccinations and Preventative Treatment:
The best and most common way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu shot, which is easily accessible in most cities. Flu shots take two weeks to be effective while your body develops antibodies to the virus. During this time, the process of creating those antibodies and immune response can cause very minor common cold-like symptoms for a few days. While flu shots have been implemented as the most commonplace preventative measure against the flu, it is important to note that the flu shot is not 100 percent effective.
The flu is rarely life-threatening, but there are cases where it has been shown to be fatal, especially in older adults and young children. Most significantly, the flu causes missed workdays and general illness. The doctors of ENT and Allergy Associates encourage individuals to get their flu shots and avoid the spread of the virus by limiting exposure to other people if afflicted with a fever.