Navigating Cold And Flu Season During A Pandemic

Posted on September 24, 2020 by Henry Ford Health System Staff 

As we start moving toward fall and winter, preventing cold and flu becomes a top priority. But with COVID-19 still widespread, this year's cold and flu season could prove to be an interesting experiment.

"People are already doing the things that we should do to prevent the spread of cold and flu viruses," explains Ashley Houghteling, NP, a nurse practitioner at Henry Ford Health System. "We're implementing physical distancing, staying home when we don't feel well and using hand sanitizer. We might even see a decrease in colds and flu this year as a result of these efforts."

Cold And Flu Facts

Each year, an estimated 39 to 56 million Americans come down with the flu. About half of them become so ill they paid a visit to their healthcare provider, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If this season's cold and flu season hits hard, it could overwhelm an already taxed healthcare system.

The only proven strategy to protect against the flu: A flu shot. The CDC urges everyone to get a flu vaccination this year, not only to prevent the spread of the flu virus, but also to reduce the burden on hospitals working hard to treat COVID-19 patients. The problem is, many Americans are staying away from their doctors' offices, pharmacies and schools, where flu shots are readily available.

"That's one reason we're offering flu shots in all of our clinics, beyond primary care, whenever we can," Houghteling says. "The idea is to capture patients where they are, rather than hoping they make a separate appointment to get vaccinated." 

Don't have an appointment coming up? Learn more about how to get a flu shot.

In addition to making it a priority to get a flu shot for yourself and your family anywhere that's convenient for you, the basic tenets of preventing cold and flu remain unchanged:

Cold And Flu Misconceptions

Many people worry that the 2020 flu season could push Americans over the edge. Although colds and flu are widespread in fall and winter, other misconceptions about these common viruses persist.

A few of the most common:

  1. The flu shot can cause the flu.The most common and dangerous misconception about influenza is that the flu shot can cause the flu. The flu shot is not a live virus, so you can’t get the flu from the vaccine. The caveat: It takes a week or two for your body to build an immune response to the virus, so you could still get sick between the time you’re vaccinated and the time your body produces antibodies to the flu. And since the vaccine usually only protects against the four strains of flu virus that experts think are most likely to circulate this year, there’s a possibility that you'll get infected with a different strain.
  2. Being cold can bring on a cold. There’s no evidence to suggest that the winter chill increases your risk of viral infections. The more likely scenario: People get more viruses during the winter months because they spend more time indoors where germs can easily spread.
  3. Supplements (or essential oils) can help you power through the flu. Studies investigating the effect of supplementsranging from vitamin A to zinc have produced conflicting results. Essential oils, too, have no scientific data to support their use to ward off cold and flu. Unfortunately, you can't supplement away an unhealthy lifestyle, says Houghteling. The best prevention strategy: Maintain a healthy lifestyle.
  4. This year's flu season is a crisis in the making.Data suggest the 2020 cold and flu season may be mild. In fact, reports from the Southern Hemisphere (where winter is coming to a close) indicate flu rates are lower compared to previous years.

Differentiating Between Bugs

One unique challenge for this year's cold and flu season is differentiating between a common virus (like cold or flu) and the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. COVID-19 and the flu share several symptoms, including fever, cough, fatigue and aches and pains.

No matter which type of bug you're battling, eating healthful foods may help you fight the virus. "Your body needs protein, energy and nutrients to boost your immune system," Houghteling says. "Fluids are especially important to help flush out toxins and help you stay hydrated." Water, teasoups and broth are all good choices.

Still sick? Any prolonged virus warrants attention this season. If you have a fever and your symptoms continue at the same level or worsen over a 10- to 14-day period, you should see your healthcare provider.

A few telltale COVID-19 symptoms that demand a physician's attention:

  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough, especially a dry, unrelenting cough

"Most important, make sure you have a low threshold for when to reach out to a healthcare provider," Houghteling says. "If you have COVID-19, quarantine is critical to protect public health."