Flu season is almost here.
That time of year between October and May is when the year’s new influenza, or flu, cases appear. They peak between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day, then wane as the weather warms back up.
Flu season happens around the same time every year. Unfortunately, the annual illness will never go away. Fortunately, we have enough collective experience to anticipate it, prepare well, and prevent as many cases as possible.
Flu season — an epidemic on repeat?
Why we faced the flu every year was a mystery for a long time. But recent years have seen some of the puzzle pieces come together.
Scientists guess a couple of factors are at play. The primary culprit? Dry air.
Turns out, flu epidemics almost always occur after a drop in humidity. The contagious bits from coughs and sneezes float around longer in dry air without ambient moisture to weigh them down and inhibit the virus’s activity.
Other reasons we might be more prone to catch the flu in flu season:
- The cold weather keeps us inside more, where germs linger The weather puts us in closer contact with other people who may be carrying illness
- The lack of sunlight runs down our body’s natural immune defenses
(Interested in learning more? Here’s a great resource on the reason germs spread in the winter.)
Now you know why flu season happens every year — next up, what to do about it.
4 tips to prepare for flu season
1. Stay smart
Remember everything you learned about preventing the spread of COVID-19? Do that. This includes:
- Frequent handwashing
- Avoiding crowded spaces
- Using masks as needed
2. Stock up
- Go ahead and stock up on the over-the-counter medicines you need. You might want fever reducers, cough suppressants and sore throat relief, and antihistamines, for example.
- And, since it’s better to be safe than sorry, why not go ahead and keep a few of your favorite soups and electrolyte beverages on hand?
3. Stay healthy
- Give your immune system its best chance to fight the flu. Stay active, spend time outdoors, get a healthy amount of sun, and stay nourished with immunity-boosting foods.
4. Get your shot
- The flu shot significantly decreases the risk of illness and hospitalization. And, while their effectiveness varies by season, vaccination in general can reduce risk by 40-60%. As for hospitalization, during the 2019-2020 flu season, vaccines helped prevent an estimated 105,000 flu-related hospital visits.
For children, if you want to avoid the discomfort of needs, there’s also a nasal spray vaccine that’s equally effective.
Wondering why you need a new flu shot every year?
If you didn’t learn it (or didn’t remember learning it) in biology, you probably learned it during the pandemic: viruses mutate. And the influenza virus is great at mutating. It’s constantly changing, so for every flu season, scientists develop a new vaccine target to that season’s most common strains.
Here’s what a flu shot does
When you go to get your flu vaccine, this is what happens:
- A little bit of flu virus protein is introduced into your body
- Option a: your vaccine uses an inactivated virus (which can’t reproduce)
- Option b: your vaccine uses a synthetic version of the virus (which can’t reproduce)
- Option c: your vaccine uses a weakened, but still live, version of the virus (which, although typically harmless, is not recommended for people with weakened immune systems)
- Your body recognizes the tiny intruder and starts to produce antibodies
- These antibodies are essentially trained to fight this specific virus type, so that if more of that type of virus shows up, armies of antibodies are ready to attack
Feeling sick after a shot?
This process is also why you may feel unwell after a flu shot. The body’s natural immune response can cause flu-like symptoms including low-grade fever and body aches. You might feel this way for a day or two within hours of receiving your vaccine.
This doesn’t mean you have the flu! You’re just feeling the effects of an immune system skirmish. The goal of the vaccine is to prevent the side effects of an all-out immune system war.
Bottom line: Take flu season seriously
While it’s easy to get comfortable with what we think of as familiar, it’s important to stay vigilant when it comes to the flu. While rates fluctuate with each season (during the COVID-19 pandemic, flu rates were down because of the precautions taken against the novel coronavirus), CDC estimates flu has resulted in more than 50,000 deaths annually since 2010.
For more resources on how to prep for flu season, see below: