When COVID-19 hit, we took measures to slow the disease-such as social distancing, wearing masks, and increased handwashing. These measures also helped to curb colds, flu, and asthma attacks in children caused by respiratory viruses.
Now that the global health emergency has officially ended, healthcare providers are preparing for increased flu activity. „The 2023-2024 flu season in the United States could lead to more flu cases than the average if the upcoming US flu season reflects the current flu season in Australia,“ says Dr. Wheaton Williams, an infectious disease specialist at Catawba Valley Medical Center in Hickory, NC.
More people are returning to work and school, and communities have lifted mask mandates. And since we have not been exposed to the flu virus as frequently in recent years, „our immunity to the flu virus is quite low,“ he says.
Here are further insights and expert tips on how to stay healthy this cold and flu season.
Getting a COVID-19 or flu vaccine is the best way to lower the risk of getting sick. They also help you avoid transmitting viruses to other people.
The CDC states that you are up to date on your COVID-19 vaccinations if you have received the initial series plus the final booster dose.
Even if a vaccine may not fully protect you from infection, „all studies have shown that it prevents severe infections if you get sick,“ says Dr. Luci Leykum, Chief Clinical Officer of Harbor Health in Austin, Texas. This means that the likelihood of having cold or flu-like symptoms is higher than needing hospitalization for a severe illness.
Doctors and scientists in the US are closely monitoring flu activity in the southern hemisphere, as this part of the world has an earlier winter and flu season. Countries like Australia experienced an intense flu season in 2023 with more cases than the 5-year average but fewer than in 2022. The good news is that our current vaccines continue to protect against prevalent flu strains.
You need separate COVID-19 and flu vaccines, as there is currently no all-in-one vaccine. After vaccination, it is possible to feel tired or have a fever. This simply means that your immune system is doing what it should be.
Wear a Mask
We spread germs through droplets we exhale when we cough, sneeze, sing, speak loudly, or breathe. A high-quality, well-fitting mask with multiple layers helps to reduce the number of germs you share or inhale with others. And when you wear a mask, you tend to touch your face less often.
Mask guidelines have evolved throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some tips on when to consider wearing one:
- Whenever you have cold or flu-like symptoms and are around others
- If you have an increased risk of contracting COVID-19
- For the first 5 days after testing positive for COVID-19
- For 10 days if you were exposed to COVID-19
- When around sick people
- In airplanes or other public transportation
The CDC has loosened mask guidelines for individuals fully vaccinated against COVID-19. For example, you may not need to wear one outdoors where case numbers are low.
Wash Your Hands
Our hands are often a place where we spread germs. It happens when you touch germy surfaces and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.
Eliminate germs by washing your hands with regular soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If you don’t have soap or water, use a hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol. Wash or sanitize your hands:
- Before touching your eyes, nose, or mouth
- Before and after eating or preparing food
- Before and after being in close contact with someone who is ill
- Before and after touching your mask
- After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
- After touching public surfaces like tables, doorknobs, gas pumps, shopping carts, touchscreens, or elevator buttons
Maintain Physical Distance
Physical distancing helps to contain the spread of airborne viruses and germs indoors. In general, this means maintaining a distance of 6 feet between you and others.
The CDC has relaxed social distancing measures for COVID-19, stating that this is only part of how you protect yourself and others from diseases. However, when considering whether to maintain social distance, it may be a good idea to consider the following:
- Your local COVID-19 community levels
- How much airflow a room has
Stay Home When Sick
You are most likely to spread flu and COVID-19-causing viruses in the first week after your symptoms begin or after testing positive for these illnesses. If you are sick, try to stay home and maintain distance from others in your household for at least that long.
If you have COVID symptoms and can go 24 hours without medication to keep your fever low, you can stop isolating. People with moderate or severe symptoms should isolate for 10 days. If you have COVID-19 but show no symptoms, you can end isolation after 5 days.
Use All Your Health Tools
There are big and small ways to slow the spread of respiratory viruses. It’s a good idea to combine all of these things to avoid COVID-19 and the flu. And Leykum says, „Things that help protect against one—wearing masks, staying further apart—also help protect against the other.“