Navigating Cold and Flu Season in 2020

Eric Futscher, M.D., Family Medicine

While navigating cold and flu season is always top-of-mind every fall and winter, the importance of staying healthy this season is more important than ever before. Thankfully, many of the steps we are taking as a community to lower the spread of COVID-19 are also helpful for lowering the spread of cold and flu viruses, but getting your flu vaccine can serve as a double-whammy for prevention. 

So we spoke with Eric Futscher, M.D., a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Alliance and Texas Health Family Care in Grapevine, to discuss how soon you should get your flu shot this year, why it’s important to receive one, plus how to differentiate cold and flu symptoms from COVID-19 and how to receive care safely this season. 

 

The importance of getting your flu shot this year

Due to the pandemic, more patients are needing medical care in emergency departments, hospitals and outpatient offices than usual. This, married with the fact that the same locations typically see a rise in patient volume during cold and flu season, could strain facilities even more. 

While there isn’t a vaccine for COVID-19, we do have a vaccine for the flu, which can help decrease the number of cases and/or the severity if you do end up contracting the virus, meaning there’s more of a chance you can recover at home versus at a health care location.

“If as many people as possible receive the flu shot, we are reducing the number of severely sick patients which then cuts back on the number of people flooding the medical system so we can prioritize caring for the sickest of patients,” Futscher explains. 

 

Who can get vaccinated and how soon should I get my shot? 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), everyone 6 months of age or older should get vaccinated for the flu with a few rare exceptions. There are different vaccines for different age groups, which your health care provider, nurse or pharmacist will choose appropriately, and contrary to popular belief, most people with an egg allergy can still get vaccinated. Those who are pregnant or have chronic health conditions can also get vaccinated. 

People who SHOULD NOT get the flu shot include:

  • Children younger than 6 months of age.
  • People with severe, life-threatening allergies to the flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine. This might include gelatin, antibiotics, or other ingredients. 

You should talk to your health care provider before getting a flu shot if you have one of the following conditions. He or she can help decide whether vaccination is right for you, and select the best vaccine for your situation:

  • If you have an allergy to eggs or any of the ingredients in the vaccine. 
  • If you ever had Guillain-Barré Syndrome (a severe paralyzing illness, also called GBS). Some people with a history of GBS should not get a flu vaccine. 
  • If you are not feeling well, talk to your doctor about your symptoms.

As for how soon you should get vaccinated, the sooner the better. Typically, the CDC recommends getting vaccinated by the end of October to give the vaccine time to protect your body before the peak of flu season (December-February), but this year the organization is advocating to get vaccinated as soon as the vaccine is available in your area. 

Need help finding where to get vaccinated in your area? Use this helpful tool to find a location near you. Alternatively, Texans can call 2-1-1 or visit 211Texas.org to find information on vaccine availability from local public health departments and other nearby non-profit organizations.

 

How health care providers are preparing for the season

In anticipation of a cold and flu season that overlaps with what is speculated to be a rough fall and winter in regards to COVID-19, many health care providers have been preparing for the season early. 

“This flu season we are extra prepared in comparison to in seasons past,” Futscher explains. “We have Virtual Visits already up and running, we have extra personal protective equipment, and we are very much in the routine of frequently disinfecting rooms and equipment.” 

Virtual Visits are expected to be a huge asset going into cold and flu season because of their ability to provide care to patients without having to physically enter a physicians’ office. While talking to your doctor virtually this year may be a new and strange experience for you, Virtual Visits can help everyone stay safe during this time and free-up in-person visits for those who cannot have a Virtual Visit. 

That being said, you may still be wondering how you can effectively be treated this season through a Virtual Visit, whether you’re showing cold or flu symptoms or something more typical of COVID-19.   

“Most seasonal allergy, cold and flu symptoms can be resolved through telehealth with the caveat that some patients may be asked to go to a testing center or stop by our office for additional testing (such as a strep swab),” Futscher says. “This not only allows us to care for the patient but also protect patients in our clinic and protect our staff members.” 

If you do end up getting sick this season, call your provider as soon as you develop symptoms and they can navigate care. For some illnesses such as the flu, it makes a big difference if treatment is started within the first 72 hours. Also, stay home if you can, stay socially distant, wear a mask and wash your hands. 

“I recommend that all respiratory symptoms be assessed by a provider virtually as soon as possible. From that point, the provider can determine if the patient needs to be seen in person or go to the emergency room,” Futscher explains. “However, patients with chest pain, extreme shortness of breath that leads to being out of breath when talking, and uncontrollable vomiting do warrant presenting to the emergency room right away.”

 

How will I know if I have a cold, the flu or something worse? 

Unfortunately, the symptoms for the cold, flu and COVID-19 largely overlap, which can make it difficult for you to differentiate what you have. While the flu and COVID-19 are both respiratory illnesses caused by different viruses, some key differences between the two can help a physician make a diagnosis, such as the presence of a fever and its severity, and if you have lost your sense of taste or smell. 

That being said, there are also some key distinguishers in the timing of the symptoms which can help. 

With a cold or flu, patients can contract the illness and show symptoms between 2 to 3 days after being in contact with another individual who is sick. With COVID-19, the timeline is much longer. You may encounter a COVID-positive individual today and not develop symptoms until up to 10-14 days later, with the average being around 5 days.

Using this guideline, you can narrow down timelines depending on the last time you or a person within your household left the house. 

Timing can also be helpful in regard to how long you experience symptoms. People with a cold or the flu tend to recover in a few days or up to two weeks, while those with COVID-19 can take longer to recover. 

By allowing a provider to discuss your symptoms with you, this allows you to be properly treated for your illness which may involve steroids, antivirals, and/or antibiotics. 

 

What should I have on hand this season, and how should I navigate the holidays?

It’s always best to go into cold and flu season prepared with over-the-counter medications and items to help alleviate symptoms, whether you end up needing to use them or not. 

Futscher recommends having the following medications on hand, if you don’t already: 

  • Acetaminophen or NSAIDs 
  • Cough syrup 
  • Decongestants 
  • Antihistamines

“I also advise that you make sure you have a thermometer that is functioning and has batteries before the season begins. The last thing you want is to reach for the thermometer when you need it only to find it isn’t working,” he adds. “You can also change the filter on your humidifier (if you have one) in preparation, in addition to having warm and cool compresses available. In anticipation of potentially being home sick a few days, it’s a good idea to have a couple days’ worth of food, water and possibly an electrolyte beverage available.”

As far as holidays go, it’s still recommended that you only mingle with those within your household or ‘quarantine pod.’ If you are still planning on meeting up with extended friends or family this holiday season, Futscher recommends washing your hands frequently, wearing a mask and social distancing, especially around elderly individuals and those with chronic health conditions. Also, try to limit the group to less than 10 people. 

While there’s no way to determine how bad a cold or flu season will be, being proactive ahead of the season, getting your flu shot and maintaining healthy habits such as wearing a mask, safe distancing, not touching your face and washing your hands frequently can help keep you healthy and lessen the burden on our health care facilities. 

To learn more about what Virtual Visits and what illnesses or conditions are better suited for an in-person visit, please read our post “The Virtual Patient Experience During COVID-19.” To learn more about the protocols we have in place designed around your safety, visit TexasHealth.org/WithYou.

Want more tips? Read our post “5 Ways to Arm Your Immune System” to get prepared this season.

Need to see a physician during cold and flu season out of traditional office hours? Breeze Urgent Care centers are conveniently located near you throughout our North Texas communities and are open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Texas Health Physicians Group providers are employed by Texas Health Physicians Group and are not employees or agents of Texas Health Resources hospitals.

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