When COVID-19 arrived, we took measures to slow the disease – social distancing, wearing masks, and washing our hands more. These steps also helped curb colds, the flu, and asthma attacks in kids triggered by respiratory viruses.
Now the global health emergency is officially ended, and health care providers are gearing up for more flu activity. “The 2023-2024 influenza season in the United States may result in more cases of the flu than average, if the upcoming U.S. flu season mirrors the current influenza season in Australia," says Wheaton Williams, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Catawba Valley Medical Center in Hickory, NC.
More people are back to in-person work and school, and communities have lifted mask mandates. And since we haven’t been exposed to the flu virus as much over the past couple of years, “our immunity to the flu virus is pretty low,” he says.
Here are more takeaways and expert tips on how to stay healthy this cold and flu season.
A COVID-19 or flu vaccine is the best way to lower your chance of getting sick. And they help you to avoid spreading viruses to other people.
The CDC says you’re current on your COVID-19 vaccines if you’ve had the first series plus the most recent booster dose.
While a vaccine may not completely protect you from infection, “All the studies have shown it does prevent more severe infection if you get sick,” says Luci Leykum, MD, chief clinical officer of Harbor Health in Austin, TX. This means you’re more likely to have cold- or flu-like symptoms than to have to check into the hospital with a serious illness.
Doctors and scientists in the U.S. keep a close eye on flu activity in the Southern Hemisphere, since this part of the world has an earlier winter and flu season. Countries like Australia saw an intense flu season in 2023, with more cases than the 5-year average, but fewer than in 2022. The good news is that our current vaccines continue to protect against the flu strains that are going around.
You’ll need separate COVID-19 and flu vaccines since, at the moment, there isn’t an all-in-one shot. It’s possible you’ll feel tired or have a fever after getting a vaccine. That just means your immune system is doing what it’s supposed to do.
Wear a Mask
We spread germs through droplets we breathe out when we cough, sneeze, sing, talk loudly, or exhale. A high-quality, well-fitted mask with multiple layers helps cut back on the number of germs you share or breathe in. And, with a mask on, you tend to touch your face less often.
The guidance on masks has changed over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some tips on when to think about wearing one:
- Any time you have cold- or flu-like symptoms and are around others
- If you have a greater chance of getting sick from COVID-19
- For the first 5 days after you’ve tested positive for COVID-19
- For 10 days if you’ve been exposed to COVID-19
- When you’re around people who are sick
- On planes or other forms of public transportation
The CDC has eased mask guidelines for people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. For example, you may not need to wear one outdoors where cases are low.
Wash Your Hands
Our hands are often a place where we spread germs. It happens when you touch germy surfaces and then your eyes, nose, or mouth.
Get rid of germs by washing your hands with regular soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If there’s no soap or water handy, use hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol. Wash or sanitize your hands:
- Before you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth
- Before and after you eat or make food
- Before and after you’re around someone who’s sick
- Before and after you touch your mask
- After you blow your nose, cough, or sneeze
- After you touch things in public, such as tables, doorknobs, gas pumps, shopping carts, electronic screens, or elevator buttons
Keep Your Distance
Physical distancing stems the spread of viruses in the air and germs that linger indoors. In general, this means 6 feet of space between you and other people.
The CDC has eased measures on social distancing for COVID-19, saying they're just one part of how you protect yourself and others from illness. Still, when thinking about whether to social distance, it might be a good idea to consider:
- Your local COVID-19 community levels
- How much airflow a space has
Stay Home if You’re Sick
You’re most likely to spread viruses that cause the flu and COVID-19 in the first week after your symptoms start or after testing positive for these illnesses. If you’re sick, try to stay home for at least this amount of time and keep your distance from others in your home.
If you have COVID symptoms and can go 24 hours without medicine to keep your fever down, you can stop isolating. People with moderate or serious symptoms should isolate for 10 days. If you have COVID-19 but are symptom-free, you can stop isolating after 5 days.
Use All Your Health Tools
There are big and little ways to slow the spread of respiratory viruses. It’s a good idea to do a mix of all these things to avoid COVID-19 and the flu. And, Leykum says, “things that help protect against one – wearing masks, staying farther apart – help protect against the other.”
Photo Credit: pixelfit / Getty Images
Wheaton Williams, MD, infectious disease specialist, Catawba Valley Medical Center, Hickory, MD.
Luci Leykum, MD, chief clinical officer, Harbor Health, Austin, TX.
CDC: “Use and Care of Masks,” “COVID-19 Vaccines May Make You Feel Sick,” “CDC streamlines COVID-19 guidance to help the public better protect themselves and understand their risk,” “Isolation and Precautions for People with COVID-19,” “How Infections Spread,” “Types of Masks and Respirators,” “When and How to Wash Your Hands,” “Decreased Influenza Activity During the COVID-19 Pandemic – United States, Australia, Chile, and South Africa, 2020,” “Stay Up to Date with COVID-19 Vaccines Including Boosters.”
Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care: "Australian Influenza Surveillance Reports."