Don’t call it a comeback if it was never really gone, but the flu is poised for a breakout year. Like the killer in a horror movie franchise, this flu season is bringing fresh twists to a familiar theme. Here are seven things you should know to stay safe.
Several factors make this flu season unique, including an early start, says Dr. Ellen Eaton, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the flu hospitalization rate was the highest it has been in early November since 2010-11.
The early arrival bodes ill, says Dr. Margot Savoy, senior vice president for education, inclusiveness and physician well-being at the American Academy of Family Physicians in Washington, D.C. When cases surge early, that “usually means it’s going to be a rough season.”
The flu brought friends
In the COVID-19 winter of 2020-21, as many people took precautions such as wearing masks and avoiding gatherings, flu cases sank to levels too low for the CDC to measure. This year, as more people go back out and about, the two viruses will be mingling with them.
So will a third. RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, also is spiking this year. RSV causes cold-like symptoms but can be serious for infants and older adults.
The three viruses are entirely different and provide no cross-protection. “Prior COVID does not protect you from flu,” Eaton shares. “Prior flu does not protect you from RSV.”And having one strain of flu doesn’t even stop you from getting another later.
It’s scary as ever
Between 2010 and 2020, the flu killed between 12,000 and 52,000 people annually. As of the latest data from Nov. 19, the CDC estimates that the flu had already led to 53,000 hospitalizations and 2,900 deaths this season.
People may think of the flu as a respiratory ailment, but it goes beyond that. Flu can exacerbate existing medical conditions such as heart disease. “You end up having to make your heart work that much harder to get the oxygen around your body because your lungs aren’t doing a great job,” Savoy adds. A 2018 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the risk of having a heart attack was six times higher within a week of having the flu.
And Eaton says that every year, she and her colleagues see previously healthy children, parents and grandparents get sick and die. “Every year we’re saying, ‘I can’t believe it happened to this patient.'”
Many ignore the risks
Going unvaccinated in flu season might be the equivalent of the horror movie character who