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Will flu season be different this year?

Last year we saw lower influenza infections than we have in a long time. We can credit things like social distancing, masks and handwashing which helped keep flu infection from spreading. This year has many wondering if flu season will return to high levels.

What is the flu?      

Flu, or influenza, is an infection of the nose, throat and lungs caused by the influenza virus. The flu can cause you to feel sick for at least a week. It is contagious and can be easily spread through droplets from person to person. Flu season typically starts in November peaks in January or February and lasts through March. 

There’s a misconception that influenza “isn’t that bad,” but it actually can be deadly. Nothing is “just a virus.” A virus, like the flu, can make you just as sick, if not sicker, than some bacterial infections. So, be sure to take the flu seriously.

Is it flu or COVID-19?

The symptoms for flu are really similar to COVID-19 symptoms. Flu symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Headache, body aches, chills
  • Cough
  • Runny nose, congestion
  • Sore throat
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea

COVID-19 symptoms will also include shortness or breath or difficulty breathing, and loss of taste and smell.

If you have these symptoms and aren’t sure if they are flu or COVID-19, I would not assume either way. Get tested at your doctor’s office or COVID-19 testing site for free to be sure. Remember though, you can be infected with more than one respiratory virus at the same time.  

Flu season during COVID-19 times

We don’t know what flu season is going to look like this year. We haven’t seen high volumes of influenza since March of 2020. What this year will look like will depend on a few things; if people gather without masks again to give the flu a chance to spread, and how many people get vaccinated against the flu.

Can masks help stop the flu from spreading?

Masks work. What we found was flu and most other respiratory viruses did not circulate when we were masking as a community and when we were maintaining social distance. We started seeing RSV and COVID-19 spike up recently when masks weren’t being worn.

Protect yourself from the flu

The best way to protect yourself from getting the flu is to get vaccinated. Flu vaccine is safe and available for people 6 months and older at your doctor’s office and many places throughout your community starting in September.

Here are tips for staying healthy:

  • Get a flu vaccine.
  • Continue to wear masks in public areas.
  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing (or sneeze/cough into your elbow).
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Stay home from work or school if you have symptoms of the flu.

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Pediatric Infectious Diseases

Division Director, Infectious Diseases; Medical Director, Center for Wellbeing; Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine; Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Kansas School of Medicine