Flu season might seem like old news to you. But given the past two years, it’s more important than ever to be prepared for it. Because this year’s flu season is predicted to be more severe than in recent years. And the pandemic has a lot to do with it. Now that many COVID-19 restrictions have relaxed (think: masking and social distancing), more people are getting the flu. And hospitals are already overwhelmed fighting other illnesses (see: COVID and RSV).
So we connected with Dr. Timothy Murphy, State University of New York distinguished professor of medicine at University at Buffalo, to find out everything you need to know to stay safe during flu season.
Remind me. When is flu season?
Flu season generally lasts from October through May. But this year, the flu popped up six weeks earlier, with more cases than usual. For a couple of reasons. For one, there was “hardly a flu season” from 2020 to 2021, said Dr. Murphy. Thanks to masking and social distancing. And not very many people were exposed to the flu — or developed any natural immunity. Which makes us particularly susceptible to this year’s flu season.
How many people die from the flu each year?
The CDC estimates that there have already been between 730 to 2,100 deaths this year. For context, in 2019’s flu season, between 18,000 and 79,000 people died.
But here’s the good news: Preparing yourself for flu season is simple. Enter: the flu shot. Dr. Murphy explained it can help prevent you from getting sick — but even if you still get the flu, it’s more likely to be a mild case.
When is the best time to get the flu shot?
October is typically prime time to get the flu shot, said Dr. Murphy. Because “it'll keep you protected all the way through the flu season before [the efficacy] drops,” he said. (Psst…effectiveness usually starts to drop after about six months.) But if you didn’t get it already, experts advise vaxxing up ASAP.
Can you tell me where to get a flu shot?
You can usually make an appointment for a free flu shot at your local pharmacy. To find one near you, pop your zip code into this flu shot finder. Also worth noting that most health insurance plans cover the cost of a flu shot. But if you’re not sure, call up your insurance provider or HR team to find out. And if you don’t have insurance, you can expect to pay at least $20 out-of-pocket.
Can I get my COVID booster and flu shot at the same time?
Dr. Murphy says so. And “sometimes that's a very good idea that you can do it in one trip.” But heads up: Getting them together might make you feel more side effects. Think: fatigue or arm soreness. The good news: It means your immune system is doing its job.
Who can’t get the flu shot?
In the past, people with egg allergies haven’t been able to receive the standard flu vaccine, because some flu vaccines are developed in chicken eggs. (Yes, really.) But recent research shows that the vaccine isn’t likely to cause a reaction. If you’re still concerned, there are egg-free flu shots available (hi, Flublok Quadrivalent and Flucelvax Quadrivalent), said Dr. Murphy. So be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist about your options.
And psst: You can still get the flu shot if you’re pregnant.
What else can I do to prepare for flu season?
Think: Your standard good health practices. Wash your hands frequently, stay home if you feel sick, and avoid touching your face. Yes, we mean limit the picking, scratching, and 'thinker' pose. Because you may have germs on your hands that can get in your nose, mouth, or eyes. Oh, and read up on flu remedies that do and don’t work. Spoiler: You can skip the hot toddies. And opt for chicken soup instead.
If I do get sick during flu season, is there a flu test I can take?
Yep. You can get a flu test at your doctor’s office. Which, like a COVID test, is usually collected with a nasal swab. If it comes back positive, depending on the severity or risk (like if you’re pregnant or immunocompromised), your doctor may be able to treat the flu with prescription antiviral medication. And if it comes back negative — and you feel sick — your doc can advise you on what else might be going on.
For a milder case of the flu, make sure to rest and stay hydrated. The Mayo Clinic also recs trying over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. And while you’re resting, use the time to binge your favorite true crime docs or pick up a good book.
We know — the last thing you want to hear about is more alarming health news. But getting prepared for flu season (read: getting a flu shot if you can) is a crucial step to keeping yourself and your family safe.
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