October marked the official beginning of the 2022-2023 flu season, and signs indicate that it might be active. Although restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic softened the blow for the flu season in 2020 and 2021, things have changed again, and we may all need to be more cautious this fall and winter.
The Shape of Things for Flu Season 2022
Initial concerns about a severe flu season in 2022 stemmed from Australia’s experience with the disease. As a southern hemisphere country, Australia has its flu season earlier in the calendar year than the United States or Europe, making it a harbinger of things to come. The 2022 flu season represented the worst in Australia for at least five years, signaling that northern hemisphere countries might have a similar experience.
Additionally, the southern hemisphere flu season provides a vital preview of the nature of the flu viruses that define this year’s season. This preview is essential as it helps determine the formulation of the flu vaccine or vaccines for that year.
Flu Season in the United States
Flu season in the US generally starts in October, as has been the case in 2022. While the peak of the US flu season varies yearly, it typically falls between December and February. The CDC defines the peak month as “the month with the highest percentage of respiratory specimens testing positive for influenza virus infection during that flu season.” Currently, in the United States, over 4,000 patients are being admitted to hospitals each week for flu or flu-related symptoms.
While widespread familiarity may have dulled concerns for many, flu remains a serious illness with potential mortality in vulnerable populations. Globally, around one billion people are infected with the flu annually, resulting in three to five million severe cases and between 290,000 and 600,000 deaths.
The flu infects between nine million and 41 million people in the US annually, with 140,000 and 710,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 to 52,000 deaths. As with many diseases, the very young, the very old, and the immune-compromised are the most vulnerable.
How to mitigate
While influenza is a serious disease both in the US and worldwide, the good news is that we can take several proactive steps to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. The best way to avoid getting the virus is to get the flu vaccine. Flu vaccinations are widely and readily available throughout the United States, and a quick search at the CDC’s Vaccines.gov website can help you locate the vaccine you need near you. Recommendations for specific vaccinations vary depending on individual age, health needs, and other factors.
Most adults will require only one flu shot this season, although older people and other vulnerable populations may need additional inoculation. While the ideal time to get a flu shot is in September and October, getting vaccinated later in the season can still provide protection from the peak months for flu. It’s important to note that due to the seasonal nature of the disease, the formulation of flu vaccine changes yearly. For the 2022 flu season, there are three flu vaccines that are specifically recommended for those over the age of 65: Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent vaccine, Flublok Quadrivalent recombinant flu vaccine, and Fluad Quadrivalent adjuvanted flu vaccine.
In addition to vaccination, other steps for mitigating the risk of getting the virus include regular hand washing, avoiding contact with those who are sick, covering the mouth while coughing, and practicing some forms of social distancing during peak months or around vulnerable individuals.
To recap: influenza is a severe illness, and the season is shaping up to be particularly tough. However, there is no reason to worry or panic. By taking basic precautions, getting vaccinated, and staying informed, we can reduce the risk of infection while remaining active in our day-to-day lives.