COVID-19 Update

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A woman blows her nose while wrapped in a blanket on her couch.
A woman blows her nose while wrapped in a blanket on her couch.
A woman blows her nose while wrapped in a blanket on her couch.

Flu Season and the Coronavirus: How to Prepare

Featured Experts:

Flu season starts in the fall, and this year, the continuing coronavirus pandemic will complicate the picture. COVID-19 and the flu are both contagious respiratory illnesses. You may be wondering:

  • If you get sick, what should you do?
  • How important is it to get your flu shot this year? (Spoiler alert: very.)
  • Will the flu season be bad this year?

Infectious disease expert Lisa Maragakis offers insights on what to keep in mind as you prepare for the fall and winter flu season.

Flu and Coronavirus Symptoms: How do I tell them apart?

Unfortunately, the short answer is, you can’t. If you come down with any kind of illness, the best thing to do is call your doctor, explain your symptoms and self-quarantine until you know what’s going on.

SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is a new germ we haven’t encountered before, and symptoms can vary from one person to the next.

Because some coronavirus symptoms are similar to those of bronchitis, the common cold, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), this year it is likely that a test will be necessary to tell the difference.

If You Have Symptoms: What to Do

Call your doctor. If you or your child has a fever, cough, congestion, sneezing, sore throat, runny nose, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or any other symptoms of infectious illness, stay home, call your doctor and follow his or her recommendation. It is likely that he or she will recommend that you are tested for the flu and COVID-19.

Researcher using a pipette.

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Seasonal Flu 2020: Will this year’s flu season be severe?

It is hard to predict how bad the seasonal flu will be. Each year there are several different flu viruses around, and the viruses mutate (change) from year to year. The flu shot is updated each year to protect you against three or four of the worst flu strains that are expected to show up during that season.

Human behavior is also a factor. This fall and winter, it may be that our behavior changes — such as wearing a mask and practicing physical distancing, and closures or cancellations affecting school, work, travel and public events — help contain the spread of the flu and other respiratory viruses, in addition to COVID-19.

But there is another factor to think about: Doctors are noting that fewer patients are getting recommended vaccines. Many people get their flu shots through their employer, school or local health department. Because of the pandemic, some of these large-scale vaccination events might not take place this year.

Avoid the Flu and Other Illnesses During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Both the flu and COVID-19 are spread through infected droplets and particles in the air, and can cause severe illness — even death.

As cases of COVID-19 continue to appear, other respiratory illnesses, including the flu, haven’t gone away. A flu outbreak in a location that’s also experiencing a lot of COVID-19 cases could overwhelm hospitals and make it hard for doctors and hospitals to care for a sudden surge of sick patients.

Can you have the coronavirus and the flu at the same time?

Unfortunately, yes — and if you have the coronavirus and the flu at the same time, the resulting impact could be even more severe than having either infection alone. By this fall, some areas may have a test available that can look for both the coronavirus and flu viruses so you only need one test.

Cold and Flu Season Precautions: What to Do

  1. Get a flu shot. Even if you usually skip a flu shot, this is the year to make sure you get one. It is safe for you to go to the doctor for a flu shot. For the 2020–2021 flu season, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, recommends that you get your flu shot in September or October. Ask your doctor if you should get a pneumonia shot, too.
  2. Don’t forget the kids. It’s important to ensure your children (over 6 months old) get flu shots — and any other vaccines they need. Learn more about keeping up with routine vaccinations for babies and kids during the coronavirus pandemic.
  3. Care for yourself and your family with good nutrition, plenty of rest, proper hydration, regular exercise and stress management. And always stay home if you don’t feel well.
  4. Continue protecting yourself from the coronavirus. Even if you are tired of following coronavirus precautions such as washing your hands frequently, cleaning and sanitizing, wearing a face mask and physically distancing, it’s especially important now to keep up the good work — and encourage your family to do the same.

Maintaining these habits through the cold and flu season will help prevent COVID-19 and other fall and winter illnesses, as well.

Scientist carefully insets a pipette into a test tube.

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

What you need to know from Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Updated: September 14, 2020

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