Don’t forget about the return of influenza

COVID-19 has been the hot topic for the past year and a half, monopolizing TV news programs and documentaries. However, we cannot forget about the infectious disease that returns every year — influenza.

Influenza season usually presents yearly, any time between fall and spring, so it’s possible influenza could return to our communities in the near future.

Last season, the influenza rate dramatically decreased, most likely related to widespread mask use and social distancing, because influenza is spread through droplets in the air.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports just more than 700 deaths during the last influenza season. In comparison, there were more than 22,000 deaths from influenza the previous year.

Because influenza season was mild last year, it is easy to forget about the risk influenza can pose to each of us, and instead focus only on the COVID risk. We need to start preparing now because the influenza season could begin at any time.

The CDC estimates 3-11% of the U.S. population will develop symptomatic influenza in a given season. Influenza is different from a cold because the symptoms tend to be more intense and will come on very suddenly. People with influenza feel miserable, and they will miss a number of work days, school days or days with family.

Symptoms can include fever, body or muscle aches, cough, sore throat, runny or congested nose, fatigue, and headache. Unfortunately, influenza can be spread between people even before symptoms are present, and therefore can quickly cause a widespread outbreak in schools, workplaces, and families. Usually an infected individual is contagious for a day before symptoms present, and can stay contagious for possibly five to seven days after symptoms begin, according to the CDC. Actual symptoms might last a lot longer.

The National Institutes of Health reports the average lost work time due to influenza illness is four work days, and I can only assume the same statistic would be true for school days. With current staff shortages in many workplaces, promoting vaccination against influenza could decrease the risk of an outbreak among staff members, thus minimizing sick days.

As a nation, we are starting to gather again, which provides a great opportunity for influenza to spread. To help mitigate this risk, we need to start preparing to receive our yearly dose of the influenza vaccine.

While no vaccine is 100% effective in preventing disease, the CDC states the influenza vaccine has been shown to decrease ICU admissions in those with influenza by 26%, and it decreases the risk of death by 31% when compared to influenza infected individuals who were not vaccinated.

Influenza is a potentially deadly acute illness that can cause the loss of work time and school time for those infected. No one is naturally immune to influenza. The vaccine is the greatest tool we have to prevent widespread influenza illness in our community. Encourage your friends, family, and co-workers to strongly consider receiving the influenza vaccine this year to protect themselves and their close contacts.