As the COVID‑19 pandemic changed our lives in 2020, wearing masks and social distancing became the norm. And while these measures played an important role in reducing the spread of COVID‑19, they also helped limit the spread of other germs and viruses, including the flu.
Fewer people came down with the flu during the 2020-2021 season, likely due to COVID‑19 precautions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the positivity rate for flu was only 0.2% during the 2020-2021 season. By comparison, the rate usually sits between 26-30%.
But as life transitioned back to some sense of normalcy earlier this summer, cases of respiratory illnesses like RSV started to increase. So, what does this mean for this year's flu season? And how do the Delta variant and recent uptick in COVID‑19 cases play a role?
We asked Preeti Sharma, M.D., and Tanya Martinez, M.D., pulmonologists at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professors at UT Southwestern, to weigh in with their predictions for this year's flu season and how your family can prepare.
When does flu season 2021-2022 start?
Although the influenza virus can circulate year-round, cases typically start to appear in October and last until May. Flu season tends to peak between December and March.
However, because fewer people got the flu last year, the population has less immunity to the virus. This lack of immunity could possibly cause flu season 2021-2022 to start earlier.
What can we expect for this year's flu season?
In normal years, flu seasons can be challenging to predict. Add a pandemic, and predictions get even trickier.
"Last year's flu season was unique, and it's difficult to know exactly how that will affect this year's numbers," says Dr. Martinez. "With the COVID‑19 Delta variant now circulating, many people may still take precautions such as wearing a mask during flu season, which can help reduce cases. But less exposure to the flu last year may also mean reduced immunity this year. This could increase the potential for a bad flu season, depending on other prevention strategies."
With the risk of COVID‑19 and flu circulating at the same time, people may be more willing to get a flu vaccine this year. Having more vaccinated people in the community can help reduce the spread of the flu virus. On the other hand, because there was less flu last year, there's also a possibility that less people will choose to get vaccinated. This could lead to a challenging flu season.
With the COVID-19 virus still circulating, it's more important than ever to get your flu shot and take every step you can to keep your family healthy.
When will the 2021-2022 flu vaccine be available?
The 2021-2022 flu vaccines are now available. The CDC recommends getting the flu shot in early fall, ideally before the end of October. It can take up to two weeks for antibodies to develop after you get the flu vaccine, so you'll want to make sure you and your kids get the vaccine before peak flu season hits.
"If you do miss that early window, you and your kids should still get the vaccine. It's better late than never, especially as flu season can sometimes stretch on for months," Dr. Sharma says. "With the COVID‑19 virus still circulating, it's more important than ever to get your flu shot and take every step you can to keep your family healthy."
The CDC recommends the flu vaccine for everyone ages 6 months and older. It's especially critical for your family to get vaccinated if someone in your home has a high risk of life-threatening flu complications.
Can you get the flu vaccine at the same time as the COVID‑19 vaccine?
Flu vaccines and COVID‑19 vaccines can be given at the same time per CDC guidelines.
How effective will this year's flu vaccine be?
The effectiveness of the flu vaccine can vary. It depends on which flu strains the vaccine targets and which strains end up spreading in the community. This year's flu vaccine will target four different flu viruses (also called quadrivalent vaccines).
Each year, flu vaccines are created based on year-round monitoring of which flu strains are circulating. While there were less flu viruses this year, the CDC says this should not affect this year's vaccine. However, there is always the possibility that the vaccine may not exactly match the viruses that spread in your community because flu viruses are constantly changing.
Although it's hard to forecast how effective this year's flu vaccine will be, getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself and your family from serious illness.
"Even if this year's vaccine is less effective at preventing one strain of the flu, it may help protect you against another strain. It may also help lessen the severity of your symptoms and prevent serious complications from the flu," says Dr. Sharma. "Studies have shown that annual vaccination is the best way to protect against the flu."
How can I keep my family healthy during flu season?
The most important step you can take to stay healthy this flu season is to make sure everyone in your family (age 6 months and older) gets the flu shot. Aside from getting the flu vaccine, make sure you also:
- Practice good hand hygiene by washing hands with soap and water or using hand sanitizer
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth
- Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze
- Avoid close contact with sick people
- Stay home when you are sick
- Clean and disinfect surfaces regularly
Currently, the CDC also recommends that everyone (over age 2), wears a face mask in public indoor places in areas with high COVID‑19 spread. Wearing a mask can reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses, including the flu.
If your child develops any flu-like symptoms, get in touch with your family doctor or pediatrician. It can be tough to tell the difference between COVID‑19 symptoms and flu symptoms and testing may be needed to determine your child's diagnosis. It is possible to have flu and COVID‑19 at the same time.
"If anyone in your household feels sick, keep track of symptoms and take steps to reduce the spread of any illness," says Dr. Martinez. "Your doctor can share advice on COVID‑19 and flu testing and the best ways to recover."
See more advice for what to do if your child has been exposed to COVID‑19 or is showing symptoms.
Learn more about COVID‑19 and flu
Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family during this time. See more tips for preventing and treating the flu, or find more COVID‑19 resources on the Children's Health COVID‑19 hub.
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