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Infectious Disease Specialist Warns of Flu Spreading: "People Should Certainly be Taking This Seriously"

Infectious disease specialist explains why it's important to listen to health official's warnings about the flu. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Flu season continues to dominate national headlines as cases rise and hospitals are overcrowded. States across the country are experiencing a major uptick in people catching the flu and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "So far this season, there have been at least 13 million illnesses, 120,000 hospitalizations, and 7,300 deaths from flu." In addition, "Seven influenza-associated pediatric deaths were reported this week, for a total of 21 pediatric flu deaths reported so far this season."

As a result of a spike in influenza cases, hospitals are feeling the pressure. "The strain that this is putting on our healthcare system is certainly a concern," Dr. Hema Kapoor, Infectious Diseases and Immunology with Quest Diagnostics tells us. "The overlap that we're seeing with other viruses has also put additional stress on the system. Pediatric hospitals have been overwhelmed by patients with RSV, and while the CDC noted it appears transmission was slowing in areas of the country, we've been seeing an increase in hospitalizations due to flu and COVID-19."

With three viruses circulating at once–COVID-19, influenza and RSV, it seems unlikely not to catch one. But taking safety precautions and the advice of health officials can help avoid sickness. As always, please consult your physician for medical advice. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.

1

Flu Season Started Much Earlier This Year

Dr. Kapoor says, "This year we observed Influenza activity much earlier than previous years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported recently that 44 states have reported high or very high flu activity, with hospitalizations at their highest levels in 12 years for this time of year.  We've also seen other respiratory viruses surging as we head into the winter season. Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV – which can be especially dangerous for infants, young children and those over 65 – has seen hospitalization rates five times higher than in 2021, and we're starting to see COVID-19 positivity rates tick up following the Thanksgiving holiday."

Bernadette Boden-Albala, MPH, Dr.P.H., Director of the UCI Program in Public Health and Founding Dean of the future UCI School of Population and Public Health says, "Flu trends are constantly changing and yes there have always been "bad or worse" flu seasons and better ones. This year the epidemiologists who review the nature of the upcoming flu viruses have talked about the upcoming flu season as being a "bad" season.  There are two reasons for this – one is that the upcoming flu strain looks to be one that will be associated with more severe symptoms. Second, I believe many countries will face a bad flu season as we all have had limited exposure in the last few years to flu and so it's expected that flu may be worse because of lower levels of circulating antibodies."

2

You Should Take Health Official's Warnings Seriously

Distraught senior man sitting at hospital waiting room while female doctor is holding his hand and comforting him
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Dr. Kapoor explains, "While flu activity over the past couple of years had been low due to higher prevalence of COVID-19.  Given the sharp rise in cases and hospitalizations due to flu and other respiratory viruses it can once again lead to crippling of our health care. Therefore, people should certainly be taking this seriously and doing what they can to protect themselves.

For those who are able, getting vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19 is the best means of protection for yourself and those around you, especially if you are regularly around or in contact with people who are immunocompromised. There is no vaccine currently for RSV. Ideally, people would have already received their vaccines or booster shots, but even if you haven't gotten them yet it is still recommended that you get vaccinated as soon as you can. Peak flu season is usually December through February, so you may still be able to take advantage of the protections a vaccine can offer. It takes about two weeks for antibodies spurred by these vaccines to build up in the body and provide protection, so that's something to keep in mind when considering when to get vaccinated. They don't offer instant protection. 

The good news is that these vaccines are also widely available and accessible. The CDC also pointed out that this year's vaccine seems to be very effective at offering protection from strains that are circulating. Vaccinations are offered in many doctor's offices and clinics. Even if individuals don't have a primary care doctor, alternate locations like a local health department, pharmacy, urgent care clinic, college health center, and even in some schools and workplaces often offer flu vaccines and COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots. Other measures to use are: stay home when you are sick and use masks as needed."

3

Hospitals Can Still See You If They're at Capacity

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Dr. Kapoor says, "For mild to moderate symptoms, patients should seek care from their primary care physician or an urgent care facility if they feel they should seek evaluation from a healthcare provider based on their symptoms. However, more severe symptoms like difficulty breathing, chest pain, or confusion warrant a trip to the ER. Hospitals do have protocols in place to manage patient overflows, and it's vital to seek out care if your symptoms are severe because flu and other respiratory viruses can be life-threatening."

Jennifer Plescia, DNP, APN. She is a board certified Family and Emergency Room Nurse Practitioner explains, "Hospitals are bound by EMTALA, which is a clause that states that a hospital can not refuse care to any individual regardless of their ability to pay. If you are truly ill, it is important to go to the hospital as ERs are designed to see the sickest patients first. Just because a hospital is at capacity, does not mean that the sick do not get care, however, it is also important to know when to go to the ER vs when to go to urgent care." 

4

Symptoms that are Making People Go to the ER

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Dr. Kapoor says, "While many people are able to recover from flu with rest and fluid, there are some symptoms that would warrant a trip to the ER or urgent care. For more severe symptoms, like chest pain, respiratory distress or difficulty breathing, and confusion, patients should seek care from an ER. Those in higher risk groups, like infants and young children, those over 65, women who are pregnant, and people who are immunocompromised due to other health conditions should be extra vigilant as they tend to have more difficulty fighting viruses like flu.

Mild to moderate symptoms, like sore throat, cough, and chills, may warrant a trip to urgent care if you aren't able to get care right away from a primary care physician. 

A healthcare provider may do a rapid test for flu and if positive may prescribe an antiviral medication to treat the flu, however a negative test does not rule out flu. In such cases, a healthcare provider may order additional testing to identify a diagnosis. Because These viruses share many crossover symptoms including fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue and body aches. However, treatment options can differ, so it can be important to seek evaluation from a healthcare provider if you are sick. For routine testing during respiratory season Quest offers testing for a combination of COVID-19, Flu and RSV. "

5

How to Help Avoid the Flu

African American man in antiviral mask gesturing thumb up during coronavirus vaccination, approving of covid-19 immunization
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Dr. Kapoor says, "Many of the risk-mitigating measures we saw implemented during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic are applicable to other respiratory viruses circulating this season, including flu. Because many of them spread in the same way – by droplets that come from coughing and sneezing, it can be easily spread from person to person when an uninfected person is in close contact with a sick person. Steps like regularly washing your hands, use of hand sanitizers, remaining home when sick or feeling under the weather, and wearing a mask when in crowded indoor spaces are effective measures to limit your risk of exposure and illness."

Dr. Boden-Albala adds, "The best way to avoid the flu is to get the vaccine. Other behaviors that can help mitigate exposure are to wash your hands often, avoid touching your face with unwashed hands, clean and disinfect surfaces, avoid close contact with sick people, cover your coughs and sneezes, and stay home when you're sick." And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather