Your Flu Prevention Timeline Is Here
This year’s flu season will be like no other. How? We’re not sure, but that’s the point. After living with a global pandemic for more than year, the flu season ahead is uncertain. One thing we do know, we can prepare for it.
The following is a timeline of steps that you can take to be equipped for the upcoming flu season—from gauging the severity of this year’s influenza virus (the scientific name for the flu) to what preventive measures to take and when, plus how to time treatment if you get sick.
What We Know About This Year’s Flu
Honestly, we don’t know much. The COVID-19 pandemic made last year’s flu season and that of our southern neighbors (more on that next) non-existent. “Normally, we make a guess,” says Peter Katona, M.D., chair of the infectious control working group at UCLA in Los Angeles. “But it’s really very difficult to know what’s happening with flu coming in the next few months. So, I think anybody who tells you that they know that it’s going to be a bad, bad flu season can flip a coin just like I can.”
July/August: Look South
Typically, we look to countries like Australia, New Zealand, and South America—who are going through their winter when we go through our summer in the U.S.—to gauge what our flu season may look like. “We have about six months’ notice,” says Dr. Katona, a UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor of epidemiology. “Sometimes, we can look at what’s going on in South America because they’re in different seasons than we are and see what is happening.” Before the pandemic, this six-month glimpse would help determine what strains public health professionals should prepare for. This year might be harder, thanks to the pandemic.
Six-Month Southern Outlook for 2021
“The Southern Hemisphere is still having a relatively quiet flu season so far,” says Cameron Wolfe, M.B.B.S., associate professor of medicine at Duke University in Durham, NC. “But they’re under a lockdown-scenario, so I don’t know if that’s going to be representative of what we face in six months, given that we’re already relaxing many of our activities.” With relaxed mask policies, respiratory illnesses are starting to re-emerge in just the last few months. “Winding the clock forward six months, I bet you the same will probably happen to the flu,” Dr. Wolfe says.
September: Get the Flu Shot
So what can you do? Get the flu shot! Usually, the flu vaccine is available in September. “My advice is: If it’s available, take it,” Dr. Katona says.
One thing to keep in mind is that while there has been discussion about the high effectiveness of the coronavirus vaccines, the flu vaccines usually don’t hit those 80% to 90% efficiency heights. In previous years, the flu vaccine tends to have an effectiveness of 50% to 70% max. Still, “a vaccine is not perfect, but it’s better than nothing,” Dr. Katona, a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA in Los Angeles says.
October and November: Stock Up Before You Get Sick
The pandemic left the world with some supply issues. (Remember the empty shelves where rolls of toilet paper should have been?) There is still some of that occurring. If you can, stock up on supplies you will need for the upcoming flu season: Hand sanitizer, hand soap, tissues, cold and flu medicines and maybe extra doses of any medications you take. In addition, you'll probably want a thermometer and maybe an oximeter, which measures the amount of oxygen you're able to intake. It's also good to stock up on any specialty foods or treatments you may want to have on hand if the flu sidelines you.
Create a Flu Plan
In general, if you already have a chronic illness, taking care of yourself can be more difficult if you get the flu. If you haven’t before, use this time prior to flu season to have a discussion with your doctor about:
- what you need to monitor, such as blood sugar, ketones, blood pressure, or other bodily functions,
- what you should eat or drink,
- what medicines you should avoid or if you should take your usual doses of medications,
- and when to call your doctor.
November and December: When Location Matters
Normally, flu season runs from December to March, but it depends on what part of the country you are in. “The further north you go, the more it truly is a winter illness, stretched mainly from December, January through March and sometimes April,” Dr. Wolfe says. “If you’re further south, if you’re down in sort of the Florida Tropics, you can occasionally get flu clusters a bit sooner than that.” Tracking the flu in your area has gotten easier with weather apps that include flu prevalence in various areas. The CDC’s FLUview can also help you track flu activity close to home and around the U.S.
December Through March: Practice Prevention Like It’s 2020
For the past year and a half, all the things that helped us prevent the spread of COVID-19 also helped prevent the spread of the flu, Dr. Katona says: Washing hands, wearing masks, and throwing away used tissues. “Many of those things had the side benefit of not only counting out the flu, but really counting out all respiratory illnesses,” Dr. Wolfe says. “I hope high-risk members of our community continue doing certain things a little more carefully—such as wearing facemasks, and therefore flu season may be less impactful for them, if it reappears.”
What to Do if You Get Sick
So what happens if you take all these steps and you still get sick? If you’re not in a high-risk group that the flu can cause complications, rest—stay home, drink fluids, and take care of yourself. You will also want to take precautions not to get others sick. For instance:
- Covering your mouth with a tissue when you cough and sneeze, then discarding it afterwards.
- Washing your hands with soap and water.
- Clean and then disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with flu germs. Think high touch areas like doorknobs and faucet handles.
What to Do if You Are at High Risk for Flu Complications
Call your doctor if you’re at risk of flu complications. Anti-viral medications are available to shorten the time you are sick and to milden the symptoms. However, these drugs need to be used early during the illness so if you’re experiencing fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue reach out to your doctor sooner rather than later.
And whatever you do, stay home until you’re better. What does that mean? You are fever-free for at least 24 hours without the assistance of fever-reducing medicines.
Create a Flu Plan: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (2014.) “Take Care of Your Diabetes During Sick Days & Special Times.” https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/managing-diabetes/sick-days-special-times
If You Get Sick: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021.) “Treatment: What You Need to Know.” https://www.cdc.gov/flu/treatment/treatment.htm