Flu preparedness

As the fall influenza season begins, even as novel coronavirus continues to spread, you may be wondering if you and your family are prepared for the risk of contracting two contagious respiratory illnesses.

During the 2018-2019 flu season, an estimated 35.5 million Americans got sick with influenza and 34,200 died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Adrian Cotton, MD, chief of medical operations at Loma Linda University Health, says individuals who take safety precautions related to COVID-19 will decrease their exposure to influenza — potentially lowering the odds of a public health emergency this fall and winter.

He answers five commonly asked questions about the upcoming flu season amidst the pandemic.

What are flu season projections in the United States?

Cotton says although it is hard to predict how severe the flu season will be in the United States, taking a glance at flu activity in other parts of the world may be insightful.

He notes other countries in the Southern Hemisphere: Australia, Chile and South Africa, where winter is now ending, have reported their flu cases as 99 percent below normal. Experts from the CDC surmise community COVID-19 mitigation measures — like mask-wearing and social distancing impaired flu spread.

“This data may create a false sense of security among Americans,” Cotton says. “It is crucial to continue with practices to reduce the risk of catching or spreading the flu and COVID-19.”

What are the most powerful tools for flu preparedness?

According to Cotton, these tools are key in protecting you and your loved ones from the flu:

  1. Get your flu shot. Although there is a chance you can get the flu even after you’re vaccinated, Cotton says the number of flu hospitalizations and deaths go down with flu vaccinations. “The more community members vaccinated in a population, the better it works,” he says.
    • Even if you’re a young adult and healthy – As a healthy young adult, you may not get sick, but those around you still can. You can transmit both the flu and COVID-19 to others even if you are asymptomatic.
    • Even healthy children – The risk of complications among healthy children is higher for the flu than COVID-19. Like adults, infants and children who have pre-existing medical conditions are more vulnerable to complications.
    • Especially if you’re in a high-risk group – Older adults, pregnant women and those with underlying medical conditions are among those at higher risk for serious complications from the flu or COVID-19, according to the CDC.
  2. Continue hygiene practices. “The steps you take to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 are the same for reducing the flu,” Cotton says. “Continue healthy hygiene habits, and if you are wearing a reusable mask, make sure to wash it.
  3. Strengthen your immune system. “Exercising, getting adequate sleep, eating a healthy diet and getting a bit of sunshine will boost your immunity to disease,” Cotton says. “Ensuring mental well-being is just as important because emotional distress also affects the immune system.”
  4. Stay at home when you’re sick. The best way to stop the spread of a contagious disease is to limit exposure. Avoid contact with others, even those in your household, which will prevent the spread of both viruses.

How do I know if it’s COVID-19 or the flu?

Cotton says flu and COVID-19 symptoms look similar, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the two. Both can cause fever, cough, shortness of breath, headache, stuffy nose, body aches, sore throat, and exhaustion or fatigue. But Cotton says there are a few key differentiators:

  • “anosmia,” a sudden change or loss of smell and taste — to even strong odors like onions, garlic or coffee 
  •  “COVID toes,” redness or blisters on fingers or toes

Can you get flu and COVID-19 at the same time?

“The unfortunate answer is yes,” Cotton says. “The resulting impact of having both will be more severe than having either infection alone.”

When should you seek medical attention or testing?

Cotton recommends calling your primary care physician at the onset of flu or COVID-19 symptoms in order to determine the best treatment plan or if further testing may be required.

If you are experiencing any of these dangerous symptoms, call 911 or get to an emergency department and seek medical help immediately:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath 
  • lips or face turning blue
  • confusion
  • loss of consciousness

To learn more about what you can do to protect yourself and your family during the flu season, visit our flu page at lluh.org/flu. Loma Linda University Health Primary Care and Urgent Care locations are available for in-person or virtual visits. Appointments can be made quickly and easily online at MyChart or by calling 909-303-9939.