As we move more deeply into flu season, it’s an especially important time to protect yourself and your family. The Public Health Agency of Canada has now declared the start of a national flu epidemic as cases are rising weekly. Dr. Jerome Leis, Sunnybrook’s Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control, explains what makes this year unique and why you don’t want to sit on the vaccination sidelines.
How is this year’s flu season different?
This year, we are really dealing with a triple threat as COVID, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) — a respiratory infection that most commonly affects young children — and Influenza are all circulating. When travel was suspended earlier in the pandemic, we didn’t see a lot of flu cases, but it’s now back to the seasonal epidemic that we see every winter. This was predicted based on the experience in the southern hemisphere earlier in 2022, and we expect that this will be the most challenging flu season since 2017.
Are flu and COVID symptoms the same?
Both the seasonal flu and COVID are respiratory diseases caused by different viruses. Many of the symptoms are similar, including headache, cough, sore throat, fever, runny nose, fatigue and muscle aches. Some symptoms, like a new loss of smell or taste, are likely more indicative of COVID infection, but that can only be confirmed through testing.
While many people recover from the flu within 3 to 5 days, like COVID, it poses a major health risk for others. Those with existing health issues are at higher risk for more serious complications. Flu can lead to pneumonia, respiratory failure and can precipitate serious health problems like a heart attack – all of which can cause death.
When are you contagious with the flu?
People can spread the flu one day before they even experience symptoms, but most are contagious in the first three to four days of feeling ill. If you’re not feeling well, stay home. Not only will that give you a chance to rest and recover, but it will safeguard against the spread of illness to others including coworkers and the community.
How can I best prevent the flu?
Most importantly, get vaccinated. We know that the flu and bivalent COVID vaccines can be safely given at the same time, and both are well matched against the currently circulating strains. Stay home if you are symptomatic to both speed your recovery and protect others from illness. The final layer of protection is wearing masks and performing hand hygiene indoors. Both have been shown to reduce transmission of flu and other respiratory viruses in the community.
What are the best flu treatments?
For most people, the treatment is supportive care. That means staying hydrated with simple fluids like water and getting as much rest as possible. Over the counter medications, like acetaminophen, can help ease symptoms like aches and fever. Your local pharmacist can help guide through possible options for your specific symptoms. People who are at risk of more severe complications from flu should connect with their doctor to see if prescription medications may be appropriate to take.