One of the few pleasant health surprises of 2020 was the almost total absence of a flu season. Primarily due to safety precautions, such as masking, social distancing, and frequent hand-washing, the U.S. experienced a historic low in flu cases and deaths.
The CDC usually reports somewhere between 21 to 45 million cases of flu and 22,000 to 61,000 flu deaths each year. But during the 2020-2021 season, the CDC reported only about 600 flu deaths. In fact, only one child died from the flu this past season, compared to a couple of hundred children dying from the flu most years.
The number of flu cases this year will almost surely increase
Unfortunately, it’s not likely that the upcoming flu season will be as mild. Flu cases were so low last year because so few people were gathering in groups, and many children (who often play a significant role in spreading flu germs) either didn’t attend school in person or wore masks at school. That likely won’t be the case for the upcoming 2021-2022 flu season.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from this past year’s extraordinarily mild flu season. If people continue to persist with precautionary habits such as diligent handwashing and staying home when sick, we’ll all be better prepared than ever for the upcoming flu season.
Here’s what you need to do to reduce your likelihood of catching the flu.
Get the flu vaccine
The influenza vaccine remains one of the best prevention tools available for reducing your risk of catching the flu. That’s true even during years when the flu vaccine isn’t as effective. Every year, scientists must make predictions well before flu season begins about what strains of flu they expect will circulate and then produce vaccines based on those predictions. If the predictions aren’t entirely accurate, or if the flu virus evolves new strains, the vaccine’s efficacy will decrease.
But even in years when the flu vaccine doesn’t perfectly match the flu strains going around, the vaccine usually cuts your risk of catching the flu in half. The vaccine can also reduce how severe your illness is if you do catch the flu. People vaccinated against the flu have lower hospitalization and death rates from flu than those who didn’t get the vaccine.
Take care of your body
Your immune system needs to be at its best to fight off the flu. That means doing your best to eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep each night, and get regular physical activity.
A healthy diet includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins that contain the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients your body needs to keep your immune system in good shape. If you have concerns about whether you’re getting enough of all the nutrients you need, talk to your doctor about whether it would help to take a supplement for certain vitamins or minerals.
Sleep is especially important to letting your body replenish itself and keeping your immune system ready to tackle viruses like the flu. In fact, not getting enough sleep is linked to chronic health problems such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, poor mental health, and heart disease. Adults should get at least seven hours of sleep each night, and children need several more hours depending on their age.
Practice good hygiene
The usual recommendations for stopping the spread of germs are as true as ever. Wash your hands regularly and avoid others in public who are sniffling, coughing, or sneezing.
Now that research from the pandemic has shown how well masks slow the spread of respiratory disease, those with compromised immune systems might opt for masks during flu season, too.