Another viral illness is on the horizon: the flu.
We are still battling the effects of COVID-19 and the fall season is not officially even underway. Do we really need to be concerned about the flu? How bad can it be?
It turns out that now is the time to prepare yourself for what could be a substantial flu season, with shots now available at WellSpan practices and pharmacies. Here are three important things to know about the flu this year:
- How bad will the flu season be?
Experts don’t like to make iron-clad predictions about the flu but there are signs that, after two relatively mild flu seasons, we could be in for a more severe season this year. That forecast is based on the recent flu season in the Southern Hemisphere, a usual harbinger for what we can expect.
In Australia – where the flu season runs from May to September – the flu season began earlier this year and ended as the worst flu season in five years. It hit children particularly hard. Kids ages 5 to 9 years had the highest infection rate, followed by those younger than 5 years old. Young people contracting influenza is often a sign that the overall population is less protected, experts say.
“We are watching the rest of the world carefully to give us signs of what to anticipate when the flu season arrives in South Central Pennsylvania,” said Dr. Mark Goedecker, family physician and WellSpan vice president and chief medical officer for primary care.
- Isn’t the flu just a mild illness? Compared to COVID-19, is it really a concern?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that, while relatively mild, the last flu season caused between 8 million to 13 million illnesses, up to 6 million medical visits, between 82,000 and 170,000 hospitalizations, and between 5,000 and 14,000 deaths in the U.S.
“If you are one of the people who ends up in the hospital or, worse, loses a loved one to the flu, you would not dismiss it,” Goedecker says. “The flu presents real risks, to the very young, the elderly, and those with underlying conditions.”
- What can we do to protect ourselves?
The best thing is to get a flu vaccine, starting this month. WellSpan is offering the vaccine beginning Sept. 6 at its primary care offices and WellSpan pharmacies.
The CDC recommends an annual flu vaccine for everyone ages 6 months and older. Pregnant women should get a vaccine to protect mom and baby. Some children ages 6 months to 8 years old may need two doses of the vaccine for the best protection. (Only those who are allergic to certain ingredients of the flu vaccine should not get the vaccine. People with egg allergies can get the shot but should talk to their physician first.)
Flu shots reduce the risk of illness. The vaccines also reduce the risk of hospitalization or serious complications, even death, especially for those younger than 5 years old, those with certain chronic conditions such as asthma or diabetes, or those over the age of 65. It also helps to prevent the spread of flu to family and friends, including babies younger than 6 months who are too young to get a flu vaccine.
In addition to getting the vaccine, doctors recommend following other practices to protect yourself.
“We can take a very valuable lesson from the recent past,” Goedecker says. “During the pandemic, the health practices most of us were following – washing our hands, covering our mouths when we cough, keeping our distance when we are ill, wearing a mask when we were sick or around others who were – helped to tamp down the flu season. Those practices are still very applicable to the upcoming cold weather months when we spend more time indoors and seasonal illnesses can spread rapidly.
“Protect yourself by getting the shot and following good hygiene practices for a safe winter and spring. It’s not too early to get your shot.”
Want to get the shot? Find a primary care practice in your area. Or find a pharmacy.