You might have hoped the coronavirus pandemic would cancel what we doctors usually think of as “sick season,” but as cool weather signals the annual arrival of autumn allergies, colds and flu in the U.S., sick season is still right on schedule.
In my clinic, that means a flurry of visits and calls from patients worried about their runny noses, coughs and sore throats.
Before the emergence of COVID-19, it was already tough for patients to know how seriously to take those common symptoms. Allergies and colds are mostly just a nuisance, but a severe case of the flu can kill.
Now our unprecedented times are about to merge with the highly precedented. The flu routinely kills between 12,000 and 61,000 people in the U.S. each year, and COVID-19 has already killed more than 200,000, just since February.
Those big combined numbers of deaths can be scary, especially if you’ve skipped or postponed your usual health routines and check-ins with a doctor this year. Now’s the time to get back in gear: Here are a few steps to improve your chances of staying healthy, even during sick season.
Establish a relationship with a primary care provider before you get sick
Do this now. Being an established patient can help you more quickly get in to see a doctor or other health care provider when you get sick. Having a clinician who already knows your medical history when you call helps, too — the clinician may feel more comfortable making certain treatment recommendations online or over the phone and will know when it’s better to have you come in for a physical exam because you have certain risk factors.
Keep your vaccinations up to date
Primary care providers, as well as pharmacists, can help track whatever vaccinations you need — and those immunizations are especially important during a pandemic. This fall, as every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccines against influenza for pretty much everyone older than 6 months, including pregnant women and the elderly. The agency also recommends immunization against pneumococcal pneumonia as part of routine vaccines for children and for healthy people age 65 or older, or sooner for some adults with underlying health problems. These are two respiratory illnesses seen more often in the fall and winter months that can turn nasty.
But other serious, vaccine-preventable illnesses can be circulating in your community too — whooping coughand measles, just for starters. Talk to your clinician about which vaccines are appropriate for you and for the kids in your life. There’s no benefit to waiting to get this year’s flu shot, by the way — the CDC says September and October are “good times to get vaccinated.”
Justin Ortiz, a critical care doctor and professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Vaccine Development, notes that vaccines are lifesaving in another way this year — by helping to reduce cases of flu and pneumonia that would otherwise deplete resources needed to fight the pandemic. “Severe flu can fill up our hospitals,” he says. “If another wave of COVID-19 coincides with influenza and pneumonia season, there will be fewer health care resources to treat both.”
Got seasonal allergies that flare in the fall? Nip symptoms in the bud with early treatment
While vaccines can help keep some respiratory infections away, they don’t prevent ragweed, pollen, dust or mold in the air from triggering symptoms like runny nose, sneezing, itchy or watering eyes, headache and even fatigue. If you know you struggle with airborne allergens this time of year, start your usual medicines before symptoms develop, or at the first sign, to prevent or help stop the inflammation that makes symptoms escalate. Allergies can develop at any age; if your symptoms are new, talk to a health care provider about your best treatment options.
Timing is key, says Dr. Stuart Cohen, chief of primary care for the University of Alabama at Birmingham: “The one thing we’re telling our patients is go ahead and start taking their nonsedating antihistamines or use their steroidal nasal sprays if they usually suffer with allergies. They shouldn’t wait until their symptoms progress to start using those every day.”
It’s important to remember that although allergies can cause upper respiratory symptoms and possibly a change in your sense of smell, they don’t cause fever, which is common with COVID-19 and the flu.
This article was originally featured in NPR, read more here.