Winter is the customary cold and flu season, and a time during which many people aren’t as vigilant about maintaining their health as they might be at other times of the year. This winter has the additional variable of the coronavirus pandemic, which surged into 2021 with a second wave of spread and infection.
Building a maintaining a strong immune system is an essential aspect of general health and well-being, but it has taken on even more importance given the unique circumstances nearly everyone is facing to some degree.
Battling a double threat
The annual flu season was pretty much over when the COVID-19 pandemic appeared in the United States in March 2020; but as the world confronts the current surge and spike in cases, influenza cases are likely on the rise, too.
Some medical experts say that’s concerning because hospitals might see a simultaneous influx of flu patients and COVID-19 patients. Many hospitals across the country are reaching their capacity limits, and the deadly coronavirus mixed with the flu is a recipe for health disasters. For people who become sick with influenza, the coronavirus may pose a greater risk.
“Influenza and coronavirus are both viral illnesses that can attack your respiratory system and can be fatal,” says Carmen Cavalancia-Buggey, a certified registered nurse practitioner at Indiana Regional Medical Center’s Plumville office. “Having them simultaneously has the potential to be exceptionally dangerous.”
Social distancing, face masks and personal hygiene can help reduce the risk of being infected with either virus. Getting a flu shot is another way to stay healthy and lower the burden on hospitals.
“While the flu vaccine does not protect against coronavirus, getting the vaccine decreases the likelihood that an individual would contract influenza,” Cavalancia-Buggey says.
The months of September and October are usually when it’s ideal to get a flu shot. People should be vaccinated before flu season, which typically peaks between December and February.
“Everyone 6 months and older should receive the flu shot every flu season,” Cavalancia-Buggey says. “Of course, there are some rare exceptions to the rule, and some patients may not be able to receive the flu shot.”
She notes the flu shot cannot cause people to get the flu.
“From the time an individual gets the flu vaccine, it takes about two weeks for the body to develop antibodies to protect against the flu,” she explains. “Unfortunately, some people contract influenza after they get the vaccine but before their body has developed these antibodies.”
It can be difficult to distinguish flu symptoms from COVID-19 symptoms because both viruses have the potential to cause similar symptoms, Cavalancia-Buggey says.
“My advice would be to contact your health care provider regarding your symptoms and to discuss appropriate testing,” she adds.
It is also important for parents of children who are too young to be vaccinated to get the flu vaccine themselves, Cavalancia-Buggey says.
“This will decrease their likelihood of contracting the flu and then passing it on to the baby,” she explains. “They should also practice good hand hygiene and avoid people who are ill as a general rule, but especially during flu season.”
A weakened immune system increases the risk of illness from COVID-19, says Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, a Hawaii-based board certified internist and expert in the fields of chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, sleep and pain.
“Over 97% of people who have close contact with someone with the virus will have no problem from it,” Teitelbaum says. “This is largely because their immune system is stronger. This makes the important question: ‘What can I do to stay in that 97% that breezes through the virus?’”
Teitelbaum has some tips:
Get eight hours of sleep per night. This markedly improves immunity.
Stay hydrated, but avoid sugary drinks. “The part of your immune system that fights the virus is like our body’s Navy,” Teitelbaum says. “It works better on moist surfaces than in dry docks.”
Nutritional support is critical. “A large body of the research is suggesting that people with optimized vitamin D levels who get COVID do much better than those with even moderately low levels. Zinc is also critical for immune function. Other nutrients can be very helpful, as well,” he says.
Avoid excess sugar, especially sodas and fruit juices. “The amount of sugar in a 12-ounce can of soda suppresses immunity by 30% for three hours,” he says.
Avoid excessive focus on the virus and its reporting. “The excessive anxiety and worry can exhaust the immune system,” he says.