Preparing for flu season every year can feel a little overwhelming. It can be doubly stressful if you’re not quite certain where to start.
On top of that, living day-to-day during a global health crisis can feel crushing in general — especially if you’re already immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable.
But while the thought of facing flu season may seem daunting, becoming knowledgeable and preparing for it doesn’t have to be so scary.
While normally associated with wintertime, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that flu season could have different durations and severities every year. In the U.S., on average, flu season begins between mid-October to early November and lasts until around May.
Epidemiological data collected by the CDC place the annual peak, on average, between December and February. This blocks in roughly 7 months to watch for fevers, stuffy noses, and sore throats.
Dr. Lisa Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention with Johns Hopkins, confirmed with Greatist that “the influenza epidemics each year are actually quite predictable. In the Northern Hemisphere, [flu season] ranges from October 15th through May 15th.”
Your geographical location also impacts your exposure to influenza.
“The virus begins in certain geographic areas and tends to move to different states at different times,” said Maragakis. “We’re not sure exactly what determines this.”
Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, agrees. He cautioned people to watch for the spread of the flu when it hits, as it typically travels from one end of the country to the other. By mapping its trajectory, we can better prepare.
“It depends on where you are, when you are, that the flu is most active in your community,” he told Greatist.
Where it will land first is unpredictable. But by looking at previous years, we can at least brace ourselves for when it arrives.
Kate Grusich, a spokesperson for the CDC, told Greatist “We know that flu season rises to a peak before it drops again, and that gives us information on when to take preventive actions.”
By mapping out past trends (starts, ends, and peaks) in viral activity, we can better calibrate our response.
The start date is determined by when the first “moderate” levels of influenza are reported by state. The end date is determined by the first day all states report at “low” influenza levels. Peaks are determined by the date with the highest levels of influenza across all states.
Based on influenza-like illness data from the CDC, here are the approximate trends of the past 10 flu seasons in the U.S.
|Flu season||Start date||End date||Peak||Duration (months)|
|2010–11||Nov. 11, 2010||Apr. 2, 2011||Feb. 19, 2011||5|
|2011–12||Dec. 10, 2011||May 12, 2012||Mar. 17, 2012||5|
|2012–13||Oct. 27, 2012||Apr. 27, 2013||Jan. 26, 2013||6|
|2013–14||Oct. 12, 2013||May 3, 2014||Dec. 28, 2013||7|
|2014–15||Nov. 15, 2014||May 9, 2015||Dec. 27, 2013||6|
|2015–16||Oct. 31, 2015||May 7, 2016||Mar. 12, 2016||6|
|2016–17||Nov. 12, 2016||June 3, 2017||Feb. 18, 2017||7|
|2017–18||Oct. 7, 2017||June 14, 2018||Feb. 3, 2018||8|
|2018–19||Oct. 27, 2018||Apr. 20, 2019||Feb. 23, 2019||6|
|2019–20||Oct. 5, 2019||June 6, 2020||Dec. 28, 2019||12|
Planning ahead for flu season is critical since getting sick not only sucks for you but may also put your close contacts at risk. Here are some practical options to protect yourself and others during flu season.
1. Get that flu shot
Grusich, Maragakis, and Schaffner unanimously agree that of all the methods, getting vaccinated is the best way to prepare for flu season.
“Here in the United States, the recommendation is for everyone older than 6 months of age to receive the influenza vaccine,” said Schaffner.
“The vaccine we know is not a perfect vaccine. However, it’s a very good vaccine. It prevents many, many illnesses completely.”
2. Physically distance from others
“Avoiding crowds and keeping our distance from others is a great idea, as it reduces the risk of contagion,” says Schaffner.
One of influenza’s main methods of transmission is through respiratory droplets. We can avoid breathing these in from our neighbors by keeping a safe distance.
3. Cover your nose and mouth especially when coughing or sneezing
Similarly, a mask or face covering efficiently stops us from spreading viral droplets through our nose and mouth. A meta-analysis showed an 80 percent reduction in respiratory viral infections when wearing a mask. Plus, it can look darn stylish.
4. Wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
Hand hygiene through alcohol-based hand sanitizers or plain dish soap has proven highly effective in killing influenza viruses and other microorganisms.
Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds between meals, after using the toilet, before and after caring for someone who is sick, and after touching unsanitary materials or surfaces.
5. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth
Despite how clean your hands might be, bacteria reside on more things than we realize. It’s better to be safe by avoiding touching our faces as much as we can. If you have to, it’s preferable to use a clean tissue.
6. Maintain exercise, proper nutrition, and rest
“These are general tips that help improve health for a variety of reasons, not just preventing respiratory illness. Get sufficient rest and eat healthy foods,” said Maragakis.
By keeping your immune system strong, you’re more likely to fend off not just influenza, but a slue of other infections as well.
7. Regularly disinfect frequently touched areas at home
By targeting highly trafficked areas for disinfection, you can reduce the risk of coming into contact with harmful viruses.
8. Manage your stress by utilizing a variety of practical methods
Stress, especially prolonged stress, can weaken your immune response. There are many actionable ways to battle stress, like enjoying green tea, practicing mindful meditation, or getting a massage. Experiment to find what works for you.
9. Drink plenty of fluids
Turns out your mother was right all along. Drinking water has been associated with improved immune function.
There are also plenty of flavorful juices packed with nutrients and antioxidants like vitamin C — molecules that protect your cells from damaging compounds called free radicals.
10. Steer clear of smoke
Surprise, surprise — smoking is bad for you. Not only can smoking lower your immune response, but researchers have found that it can also change the structure of your respiratory tract — making smokers more susceptible to infections, such as the flu.
Once you’re aware of the flu season window, it’s especially important to take preventative steps as soon as possible.
Flu season is not an event you want to show up fashionably late to. According to the CDC, influenza can result in anything from mild symptoms to, in severe cases, death.
While most people recover in a few days to under 2 weeks, in rare circumstances, the patient may develop complications like pneumonia which could last longer and even become life-threatening.
Keeping the risks in mind, remember that there is more than enough information and resources out there to protect yourself from influenza. So, keep learning, stay updated, and take the steps to stay safe.
Kevin Jiang is a Canadian journalist covering health, science, and a bunch of other neat stuff. Read more from him on Twitter.