Everything You Need to Know About Flu Season This Year

While nothing is certain about the upcoming flu season, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Flu season is always a concern: It's resulted in up to 45 million illnesses and 61,000 deaths in the United States annually since 2010, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, this year the flu is compounded by COVID-19, which shares many similar characteristics. While the spread of the flu and COVID-19 simultaneously could greatly burden the healthcare system, it's also possible that mitigation efforts to prevent coronavirus infection could help better protect us from the flu this year.

Here's everything you need to know about the 2020 to 2021 flu season, and how you can best protect yourself. And for the places you should avoid right now, check out These Are the 4 Places People Went Before They Got COVID, Study Says.

There's a chance flu season could be more mild this year.

sick white woman drinking tea under a blanket

Although there are no guarantees, here's some positive news to start with: Australia and other countries in the Southern Hemisphere have already had mild flu seasons this year, which might suggest a milder season for the U.S. as well, according to the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).

Since places like Australia experience flu season earlier than the U.S., they often reflect what's to come in the Northern Hemisphere. "For example, last year there was a particularly bad flu season in Australia that presaged a bad flu season for us as well," says David Aronoff, MD, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee.

However, experts warn that this is a particularly unique year with the presence of COVID-19, and that even a mild flu season could overwhelm the health system. What's more, colder temperatures and variations in prevention measures across the U.S. may yield different outcomes than what was seen in the Southern Hemisphere.

COVID-19 precautions could help to reduce flu spread.

older white woman with face mask walking on sidewalk with another woman walking behind

Experts believe the milder flu season in Australia could be due to factors like social distancing and travel restrictions. In other words, the steps we're taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19 could also help to reduce the spread of the flu. Like COVID-19, influenza is a respiratory pathogen, meaning it's spread through the breath from one person to another.

"Keeping our distance from other people, wearing cloth face coverings when we are in public and around other people, and paying close attention to hand hygiene are all likely to reduce the transmission of a range of respiratory tract viral infections, including influenza," says Aronoff. "This is another really good reason why we should not let up on the strategies we are currently using to prevent transmission of COVID-19."

And for more on stopping the spread, here are Dr. Fauci's Top 10 Tips to Keep You Safe From COVID-19.

It'll be extra important to get your flu shot.

Nurse gives flu vaccine to senior adult patient at a local pharmacy, clinic, or doctor's office.

This year, the CDC says it's more important than ever to get your flu shot. Even though the flu vaccine won't protect against COVID-19, it has been shown to reduce the risk of flu, hospitalization, and death.

What's more, protecting yourself against the flu will save healthcare resources for the care of COVID-19 patients, since it's likely both the flu and the virus that causes COVID-19 will spread throughout the fall and winter.

The flu shot can shorten the amount of time you're contagious.

Older woman getting vaccinated

When you get your flu shot this year, you'll also be protecting those at risk around you.

"The flu shot reduces the severity of symptoms and shortens the amount of time that someone is contagious," says Aronoff. "If we pair that with social distancing measures, face coverings, and closer attention to hand hygiene, all of that could really add up to a greatly weakened influenza season, which would be reason to celebrate."

There will not be a shortage of flu shots this year.

Medical doctor or laborant holding tube with nCoV Coronavirus vaccine for 2019-nCoV virus. Novel Coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China. Coronavirus 2019-nCoV concept.

Although some have wondered if the flu vaccine supply chain might be disrupted this year, Anthony Fauci, MD, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), confirmed this wouldn't be the case in an interview with the American College of Cardiology.

"We're going to deliver the seasonal influenza vaccine the same way we do every year," said Fauci. "The vaccines will be commercially available and given at the doctor's office, in pharmacies, and all the different places it's usually given."

The flu shot will help protect you from pneumonia.

Shutterstock/Krisda Ponchaipulltawee

This is another important reason to get your flu shot: It'll help you avoid a case of pneumonia, which can also occur in tandem with COVID-19.

"It's always important to get the flu shot, because it does prevent influenza," says Aronoff. "But it also seems to protect against pneumonia, possibly because some people get bacterial pneumonia as a complication of influenza."

The flu is a common cause of pneumonia, particularly in younger children, elderly adults, pregnant women, and individuals with certain chronic health conditions, according to the American Lung Association. Flu cases that lead to pneumonia can be severe and deadly. And for more on your respiratory health, check out 17 Warning Signs Your Lungs Are Trying to Send You.

COVID-19 patients will need to defer getting their flu shots.

One woman infected with virus and sick. sleeping in home, using face mask, handkerchief and toilet paper on table

While it's important to get your flu shot, you'll have to wait until you're healthy to do so if you're diagnosed with COVID-19. The CDC has released guidance stating that data on the effects of giving the flu vaccination to people with COVID-19 is limited, so clinicians should consider delaying administering flu shot to patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 until they're no longer ill.

It may be easy to confuse flu with COVID-19.

black man checking his temperature and making a phone call

It's important to know the symptoms of both the flu and COVID-19 so you and your doctor can accurately diagnose your condition. Testing may be required to confirm a diagnosis since flu and COVID-19 share many characteristics, according to the CDC.

They both may result in symptoms such as fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle pain or body aches, and headache. With both illnesses, one or more days can pass between infection and when you start to experience symptoms. And for more signs of coronavirus, These Are the 51 Most Common COVID Symptoms You Could Have.

Flu season could put a strain on testing.

Female doctor wearing surgical mask examining infected patient. Mature healthcare worker checking mid adult man. They are at pharmacy.

Because the flu and COVID-19 share many similar symptoms, there's a possibility that testing may be strained. The same reagents—the substances needed to conduct the tests—are required for both flu and COVID-19, which may increase demand, according to UCSF.

However, in the interview with the American College of Cardiology, Fauci said he was hopeful that a test designed to detect both flu and COVID-19 would be available this fall.

"I hope by the time we get to the fall, the problems we've seen with testing availability and turnaround time will be solved and people will be able to go to a doctor's office and get tested for both influenza and COVID," said Fauci. "It's not standard right now, but there are a number of companies that have started to work on a test that can test for both of them simultaneously."

If you lose your sense of taste or smell, it's probably COVID—not the flu.

Woman trying to smell lemon lost sense of smell

While a test will be needed to make a definite diagnosis, one key symptom that might alert you to a COVID-19 infection versus the flu: a change in your sense of taste or smell.

"With influenza, we don't typically see anosmia, which means a loss of sense of smell or a change in our sense of taste," says Aronoff. "Influenza also does not quite have the tendency to cause the kinds of neurological problems we're seeing with COVID-19." And for more helpful information delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Hand hygiene will continue to be important.

Person washing hands with soap

By now, you've gotten used to frequently washing your hands or using hand sanitizer to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Healthy hand hygiene will continue to be important throughout the flu season.

"Our greetings have changed significantly—we don't shake hands anymore, we're unlikely to hug or kiss people we haven't seen in a long time, and we're paying close attention to cleaning our hands," says Aronoff. "Those things in and of themselves are likely to interrupt the transmission of influenza."

Washing your hands often can help stop the spread of germs and lower the risk of respiratory illnesses like the flu, says the CDC. If you can't wash your hands with soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Regular handwashing and good hygienic habits were associated with a lower risk of influenza infection in a 2016 study published in the journal Medicine (Baltimore).

It may be the first year of regular mask wearing.

Man wearing a face mask during the coronavirus pandemic

This year, wearing face coverings will continue to be an important part of preventing COVID-19 transmission—but it might also be the first year they're used routinely for flu prevention.

"The use of face coverings unquestionably has the power to reduce the threat of influenza," says Aronoff. "I could see a situation in future years where we see the routine deployment of face coverings quite voluntarily during the winter months. I think we're just now fully embracing these inexpensive habits that are fundamental for hygiene because of the horrible pandemic of COVID-19."

Avoiding crowds will help reduce the spread of the flu.

white man with face mask on crowded subway train

People with flu can spread it to others up to around six feet away, and it's thought that flu viruses are mainly spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, according to the CDC. You're most contagious with the flu in the first three to four days after you get sick, but most healthy adults can infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop—which is why it'll be so important to continue to follow social distancing guidelines this flu season.

"We need to make sure we get across that the things we should be doing for the containment of COVID-19 are directly applicable to influenza as well," said Fauci in the American College of Cardiology interview. "Keeping a distance of six feet, avoiding crowds, and avoid crowded places like bars—and in fact, maybe even close the bars in some places."

Flu season will start around October, which could pose a challenge.

white dad and daughter raking leaves
Shutterstock/Alfa Photostudio

The flu circulates throughout the year, but flu activity in the U.S. tends to begin increasing in October, according to the CDC. This may pose a challenge this year, since colder weather may force more people indoors and in close quarters with one another, which also increases the risk for COVID-19 transmission.

It's best to get your flu shot by the end of the October, says the CDC. In the U.S. flu activity typically peaks between December and February.

Certain flu medications might be used for COVID-19 symptoms.

Senior adult man gets prescription medicines out of his medicine cabinet

While there isn't a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 yet, medications that are typically used to treat the flu might be used to relieve similar symptoms in COVID-19 patients this flu season.

Antiviral medications are currently undergoing testing to determine if they can be used to reduce or eliminate COVID-19 symptoms, according to the Rochester Regional Health system in New York. For now, if you test positive for COVID-19, ask your doctor about over-the-counter medicines that may help with your symptoms.

Certain things that you do to feel better when you have the flu—like staying well-hydrated, getting enough rest, and taking medications to reduce fever or aches and pains—may also help you feel better when you have COVID-19, according to Harvard Medical School.

And while antibiotics won't cure COVID-19, a doctor may prescribe them in severe cases, according to the University of Maryland Medical System: Viruses like COVID-19 that attack the lungs and stop them from fully inflating may lead to a secondary bacterial infection, which antibiotics can help with.

You could get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time.

Senior woman discusses her prescription medication with a doctor via video conference. The woman is using a digital tablet.

It's possible to test positive for the flu (and other respiratory infections) at the same time as COVID-19, says the CDC.

"This is one of the reasons we're concerned about the co-circulation of these two viruses at the same time in our population," says Aronoff. "Statistically, the more COVID-19 activity we have coupled with more influenza activity, the more likely it is that somebody is going to be the unlucky recipient of both infections at the same time. We don't know what that means for that individual's health, but I can't imagine it's a good scenario."

There are still many unknowns.

Female doctor consults mature patient during the quarantine for coronavirus

Ultimately, there is still much to be learned about this flu season and how it'll be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. "I think we need to be honest and say upfront that we're really not sure what's going to happen," said Fauci in the American College of Cardiology interview. "The worst-case scenario is we have a very active flu season that overlaps with the respiratory infection of COVID-19."

However, he noted that there is another possible scenario that epidemiologists occasionally see: It's possible that when a respiratory infection like the seasonal influenza comes along during another ongoing rampant respiratory illness, there's only enough room for one of them—meaning the rampant illness dominates and "bumps out" the other one.

The best steps you can take right now to protect yourself include getting your flu shot and continuing to follow common COVID-19 guidelines (like wearing a face covering in public, maintaining a distance of six feet from those you don't live with, and washing your hands regularly).

Kelsey Kloss
Kelsey Kloss is a health and nutrition writer based in New York City. Read more