You may have noticed this among your friends and family, but once COVID-19 forced us all to stay home, cases of cold and flu in the United States dropped by hundreds of thousands of cases. The specific numbers: Between September 2019 and January 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 130,000 cases of the flu, while there were only 1,316 cases from September 2020 to the end of January 2021.
In short, not only did staying home and wearing masks help us fight COVID-19, it also stopped the spread of the flu. While numbers are hard to come by for colds because most people don’t go to the doctor for treatment, anecdotally, cases of the common cold appeared to drop, too. So how bad will flu season be this year? We spoke to experts to find out.
What’s Potentially in Store for Cold and Flu Season
Now that many of us are out and about, doctors are hoping cases of colds and flu don’t combine with cases of COVID-19 to create a new epidemic, which first became a concern back in 2020 when the Israeli Outbreak Management Advisory Team named this combo “flurona.” The bad news: This confluence struck Australia in July and August this year (the country’s winter season).
“The flu season peaked earlier than usual and cases climbed steeply in Australia due to a combination of low immunity given lack of exposure to influenza in recent years and a drop-off in social-distancing measures,” said Janin Struminger, M.D. an infectious diseases specialist in Tucson, Arizona. “With a concurrent rise in COVID-19 cases, a double viral peak was observed, but if Americans practice some of the habits, such as masking, that they did with COVID-19, then they will likely prevent a ‘twindemic’ this cold and flu season.”
Colds, Flu, and COVID-19 are Not The Same Viruses
Colds, flu and COVID-19 are all viruses—submicroscopic infectious agents that target cells—and they share some similarities. All three are respiratory illnesses with some of the same symptoms (sore throat and stuffiness, for example), but they differ in severity and potential outcomes.
“What we call a ‘cold’ is usually one of many viruses that cause runny nose, cough, and fatigue,” explains Struminger. While it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the symptoms of the three illnesses, once you test negative for COVID-19, you can usually differentiate between a cold and flu by the appearance of your symptoms. For example, the flu usually comes on suddenly and “knocks you out,” while a cold comes on slowly and, although annoying, isn’t as severe. You probably won’t have a fever or an upset stomach with a cold, like you might with the flu.
“These infections can make you feel rotten, but also lead to missed work (and income) and missed social activities,” Struminger adds. Colds and flu may seem less worrisome than the COVID-19 virus, but, in fact, the flu is dangerous for young children, older people, and those with chronic conditions and illnesses.
Finally, even though the cold, the flu, and COVID-19 are three different viruses, if you protect yourself against one, you are protecting yourself against all three because these viruses spread in very similar ways (sneezes, coughs, and germy hands). More good news? Because of COVID-19, we are now experts in virus protection and have witnessed the effectiveness of that prevention.
Expert Advice for Avoiding Getting Sick This Flu Season
To keep you healthy through what might be a more severe cold and flu season, follow these tips:
The CDC recommends that Americans get a flu vaccine ideally by the end of October, and if you haven’t been boosted against COVID-19 get that inoculation, as well. That means you should also have the initial COVID-19 vaccination series.
“It is safe to get a flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine (or booster, if eligible) at the same time,” Struminger said. (The CDC agrees.) “The two would not counteract each other and any increase in side effects compared with one vaccine would be expected to be mild, if present at all. The convenience in receiving the two vaccines together is a considerable advantage.”
Struminger adds: “We continue to see the most severe COVID-19 cases in the unvaccinated population. Likewise, influenza vaccines protect against severe infection and hospitalization.”
Remember, vaccines protect all of us, as a community, not just an individual. “More vaccinated people equal fewer infections and, therefore, a lower chance that the virus can mutate,” Struminger adds. In fact, flu vaccines are updated annually to protect against the influenza viruses that are most likely to circulate during the upcoming season.
Wash Your Hands; Sanitizer is Second Best
As you’ve heard before, hand washing is a pretty strong way to stave off sickness, so use soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds. Also, it’s always smart to carry a small bottle of liquid soap or hand sanitizer. While sanitizer does not kill all germs, it’s better than not cleaning your hands at all.
Remember that the surfaces in bathrooms and public spaces are often not clean or sanitized so try not to touch what are considered “high-touch” surfaces, such as door handles and countertops in stores and restaurants.
Likewise, in your home, along with washing your hands, frequently wipe down surfaces with soap and water, especially spots that are near those who are sick, including bathrooms. For spots exposed to germs from coughing or sneezing, a disinfectant can come in handy.
Flu, cold and COVID-19 viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people cough, sneeze, or talk, so if someone near you is sick, encourage them to wear a mask. It’s also helpful if you wear a mask to protect yourself around those with any cold, flu, or COVID symptoms. “Consider being masked in crowded places,” Struminger said.
Also, make sure to cover your own nose and mouth when you sneeze and cough.
Even if you aren’t wearing a mask, act as if you have one on to keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth which will help to stop the spreading of germs.