So far in the 2022-2023 influenza season, the U.S. has seen a vast increase in flu-related cases, hospitalizations and deaths. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that there were up to 19 million flu cases, 170,000 hospitalizations, and 13,000 flu deaths between October 1 and November 26.
This is the largest increase in influenza cases seen in the U.S. since the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic. Consequently, the 2022-2023 flu season, which runs until May 2023, could be one of the worst flu seasons we have seen in quite some time, according to the CDC.
In addition to the flu, there has also been a rise in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases and hospitalizations. RSV infects the respiratory tract and has similar symptoms to influenza.
By contrast, the 2021-2022 influenza season had very low numbers. In fact, CDC personnel were unable to estimate the flu burden during last year’s flu season.
The lower number of influenza cases that occurred during the last influenza season were likely a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) precautions that were still in place, such as mask mandates and social distancing. However, many of those mandates have now been relaxed or eliminated altogether, so it is possible we will continue to see an increase in influenza cases during this year’s season.
Who Is Most at Risk for Flu Complications?
Many of the hospitalizations reported by the CDC are occurring more in young children (younger than two years of age) and older adults (age 65 years and up). Both of these populations are at greater risk for developing more serious complications from the flu, due to the fact that in younger children the immune system has not fully developed and older adults may have a weakened immune system.
The CDC examines the effectiveness of flu vaccines annually; these vaccines provide upwards of 60% protection from the current strain of influenza circulating in U.S. society. However, the flu virus mutates constantly, and some people are more at risk for developing complications if they contract the flu. According to the CDC, the people most at risk for developing serious complications from the flu are:
- Adults with compromised immune systems
- Adults with certain chronic conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease or kidney problems
- Adults 65 years or older
- Children under 2 years of age
- Pregnant women
How Can You Protect Yourself from the Flu?
Getting vaccinated against the flu is one of the best ways to protect yourself. You may still experience mild flu symptoms if you are infected after vaccination, but you are more likely to be protected from the more severe symptoms of flu, such as:
- Muscle or body aches
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
If you do get sick with the flu or experience one of its symptoms, it is best to see your doctor right away. You may be able to take anti-viral medications that can greatly reduce your symptoms and the flu’s severity, but these medications must be started early, generally within two days of when influenza symptoms begin.
In addition, anti-viral medications may also help in reducing the possibility of more serious complications from developing, like pneumonia (an inflammation of the lung’s air sacs).
Protecting Yourself from RSV
Most people who become infected with RSV will experience a mild illness and recover fairly soon. However, very young children and elderly adults are more at risk and likely to develop serious complications if they become infected with RSV.
Fortunately, many of the same precautions that will help prevent influenza will also protect you against RSV. So make sure to follow the CDC’s recommendations; wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, and cover your cough with a tissue or your sleeve. Also, avoid close contact with others and be sure to clean frequently touched surfaces, such as doorknobs and mobile devices.