PORTSMOUTH – As COVID-19 precautions are reduced, doctors say they expect to see more cases of the flu this year.
For the past couple of years, while there were still some cases of influenza, the precautions taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, things like wearing masks, practicing good hand hygiene and social distancing also kept flu cases to a minimum.
Since these practices have waned in general, doctors are urging people to get one more shot this season, their annual flu shot.
Besides just avoiding getting the flu, the flu shot will help avoid getting both flu and COVID-19 at the same time, which doctors say is possible.
"There has been a lot of speculation about the flu this year," said Dr. Justin Kim, an infectious disease expert at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. "We have not seen a big flu season for the past three years. Two years ago, we didn't see a peak until January and then it went back down. Last year we had one peak in the fall and another in the spring."
Flu season here is typically considered to begin around October and continue through March, longer in some years. In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost no flu cases appeared, attributed to masking and other precautions.
Kim said those precautions are not happening with anything near the regularity they were when pandemic cases were high, so he said it is reasonable to think we will see more influenza cases this season.
"So get the shot," he said. "It's important to emphasize that the flu easily mutates, and that symptoms mimic those of COVID in some ways, particularly the respiratory aspects."
Is the flu shot the same every year?
Flu shot components vary year to year.
"Each season doctors here watch to see what happens in Australia, in the Southern Hemisphere," said Dr. Evangeline Thibodeau, an infectious disease doctor at York Hospital. "Then they make their best predictions on the severity of the flu season and on the two to three strains of flu they include in the shot."
Thibodeau agreed with her colleagues that we will likely see more flu this year as mitigation steps for COVID-19 are reduced.
"We have seen some activity in Maine already, but just a few cases," she said. "Providers are encouraged to begin to watch for flu, and flu shots are available now."
Getting a yearly flu shot is not new. Dr. Artemio Mendoza, an infectious disease doctor at Wentworth-Douglass said we should not think of this any differently than in other years, or because we had lots of COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.
"We have seasonal flu every year, and we might have COVID every year, too," said Mendoza. "Late September, early October is a good time to get the flu shot, which you can do at the same time as a COVID booster if you need that, too."
Who should get the flu shot?
Mendoza said the flu poses risks to everyone, but particularly the elderly or people with poor immune systems. He said infants under 6 months cannot get it, but almost everyone else can unless they have a severe allergy to components in the shot.
"By severe, I mean anaphylactic," he said. "There is even a version of the shot for people who have an egg allergy now."
Thibodeau said the egg allergy shot is rarely used. If it is necessary, she said it is given in a medical setting, so the patient can be watched for allergic reactions. It is only for a person 18 and older.
Are flu shots available now?
Flu shots are available now, through primary care doctors, clinics and many pharmacies.
"Now is a good time to get it," said Kim. "But, it is never too late in the season to act."
Can the flu shot give you the flu?
It is impossible for a flu shot to give a person the flu.
"The flu shots do not contain a live virus," said Mendoza. "It is an inactivated virus that causes your immune system to create antibodies against the flu, recognizing the virus if you are exposed. Some people can have a small reaction the next day, like the one they might have to the COVID shot. It is not the flu and not anywhere as virulent as the flu."
"A person might feel achy, feverish and have other flu-like symptoms for up to 24 hours," said Thibodeau. "It is nothing like the actual flu. So I encourage my patients and others, to get the flu shot."
This article originally appeared on Fosters Daily Democrat: Flu cases expected to rise this year so shots strongly recommended