Flu season is coming and it could be ugly: What you need to know

By Kerry Blackadar

Person on grey background wearing a mask and holding hands on temples
Common cold viruses are back and circulating again. Photo: Usman Yousaf / Unsplash

As COVID-19 restrictions ease, Canada is seeing a resurgence of many respiratory viruses—and many experts predict this year’s flu season could be severe.

Dr. Michael Curry, clinical associate professor with UBC faculty of medicine’s department of emergency medicine, reveals how this year’s flu season will be different from the last and weighs in on how to reduce your risk of getting sick.

How will this year’s flu season be different from last year?

Last flu season we essentially had no cases of influenza and relatively few cases of other respiratory viruses here in Canada. When someone was sick with a respiratory infection eight or nine months ago, it was very likely they had COVID-19.

This year, the big change I have seen is the re-emergence of our “usual suspect” respiratory infections. Common cold viruses are back and circulating again. While we are still seeing COVID-19 in Canada, we are finding other respiratory viruses on a regular basis as well.

How might this year’s flu season interact with the fourth wave of COVID-19?

With the upsurge in other respiratory viruses, we can expect a resurgence of influenza this year.

A bad flu season can rapidly fill up emergency departments and hospital beds, and as we all know, COVID-19 is already doing a good job at that.

That’s why it’s important—not only for your own health, but the health of the people around you, and the health of your community—that you do what you can to prevent getting and spreading the flu. Take the same precautions you are already taking for COVID-19: stay home when sick, wash your hands, cough into your sleeve, wear masks in public areas, and get immunized.

Will people be more susceptible to the flu because of germ avoidance and social distancing measures over the past year and a half?

No, quite the contrary. In general, viruses adapt as they spread to more people and have more opportunity to evolve.

COVID-19 public health measures have had a secondary effect of suppressing the spread and adaptation of other respiratory viruses. Less cases equates to less evolution of those viruses, which means your body’s immune system is more likely to be familiar with that virus and better able to fight it off.

Photo of UBC Faculty of Medicine's Dr. Michael Curry on a blue background
Dr. Michael Curry, Clinical Associate Professor with UBC Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Emergency Medicine.

How can I tell the flu apart from COVID-19?

It’s hard to tell the difference, as they are both respiratory infections and affect your body in a similar fashion.

While in general we think of the flu as being a mild illness, in a ‘regular’ flu season several thousand Canadians die from the flu each year – and in a bad flu season, things can be much, much worse. For example, the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic had a considerably higher case fatality rate than COVID-19 and killed tens of millions of people.

With influenza, COVID-19 and any respiratory infection, you should seek medical attention immediately if you are having trouble breathing or you feel short of breath at rest, if you start to become confused, or if you feel much sicker than you have with other respiratory infections in the past.

What do people need to know about this year’s flu shot?

The flu shot is still made using the same process that has safely been used for decades.

The catch with the flu shot is that influenza is a fast-evolving virus and it takes a long time to make billions of vaccine doses. Virologists and epidemiologists start making predictions as to what strain of the flu virus will be circulating about 18 months before a flu season begins.

Sometimes a flu strain evolves so quickly that the vaccine is not as effective as we would have hoped. Yet it remains very important to get your flu shot every year—it’s the best way to reduce your chance of getting sick from the flu, and it can also help reduce the severity of illness if you catch it.

Is it safe to get a flu shot at the same time as a COVID-19 shot, or between first and second COVID-19 vaccine doses?

There is no need to space out COVID-19 vaccination and other vaccinations.

People tend to think of a vaccination as “stressing” their immune system. What we need to keep in mind is that our immune system responds to thousands, if not millions, of things a day. With every breath you take, you are taking in allergens and microscopic life that your immune system is constantly responding to.

Kerry Blackadar is a writer with UBC Faculty of Medicine. This article was published on October 14, 2021.
This article is republished from UBC Faculty of Medicine. You can read the original article here. If you are interested in republishing this article, please contact UBC Faculty of Medicine.

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