October 21, 2020

Three things an infectious disease specialist wants you to know this flu season

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The double-whammy of COVID-19 and influenza will make for an interesting fall and winter. Here’s what you need to know to stay healthy.

Flu season can cause all sort of confusion in normal years. Do I need a vaccination? What symptoms should I be looking out for? How can I protect my family? But this year is not a “normal” year by any stretch of the imagination. Therefore, it’s understandable that you may be even more confused as to what to expect and how to prepare.

To address these concerns, we spoke with William Schaffner, M.D., a professor of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, about what’s different this flu season — and why it’s critical that we all pitch in to fight the spread of the virus. Here are three things he thinks it’s important to consider this year:

1. Yes, you need a flu vaccine, even if you’re following social-distancing protocols.

“It’s very important to both get vaccinated and continue social distancing and mask wearing,” Schaffner said. “We might take a little bit of a lesson from the Southern Hemisphere — Australia and New Zealand had an incredibly low flu season, and that didn’t happen by chance. My Australian colleagues tell me two things were critical: The first is they used more flu vaccine than they ever have before. And second, they were pretty good — not perfect — about the social distancing and mask-wearing. And they think those two things have really helped them both control COVID-19 and have this incredibly low flu season. So I know that the more of us who do both, the better off we will be at fighting both COVID-19 and flu as we go through the winter.”

“We need to take some strain off the healthcare system, because each year, flu strains the healthcare system, all by itself.”

2. By getting vaccinated against the flu, you’re helping your community health system.

“We need to take some strain off the healthcare system, because each year, flu strains the healthcare system, all by itself,” Schaffner said. “And many parts of the country are already stretched because of COVID-19 — and we expect more COVID-19. So anything we can do to reduce the impact of flu on doctors, emergency rooms, hospitals and the like, would be a good thing. That will help all of us provide better medical care to people who really need it.”

3. You should call your provider as soon as possible if you develop symptoms.

“Flu, COVID-19 and, to a degree, even the common cold all have symptoms that overlap,” Schaffner said. “If most of your symptoms are above the neck and you don’t feel too poorly, that’s probably your common cold. But if there’s anything that goes down into your chest, or you feel feverish or you start having body aches and pains, you really need to get in touch with your healthcare provider as soon as possible. And remember: You can have either COVID-19 or flu without having a fever, particularly if you are older. So don’t lull yourself — call your provider. And the sooner, the better.”

This year, flu shots are more important than ever, and getting them has never been easier. Talk to your child’s pediatrician about the flu vaccine, and if you need one for yourself, find locations here.

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