In the 2019–20 flu season, influenza and pneumonia were associated with an estimated 38 million illnesses.
But during the pandemic, the number of flu illnesses dropped so much that the CDC reported that “there were not enough flu illnesses or flu-associated hospitalizations in the United States to use a model to estimate the U.S. flu burden for 2020-2021.” This drop was largely because of social-distancing measures put in place to slow the transmission of COVID-19.
Now that the COVID vaccine is out and your children are returning to school as normal this fall, what will the 2021–22 flu season be like? Some experts warn that it could be a bad one, while others say it may not be so bad. Either way, it’s important to do what we can to protect our children from flu, RSV and their related complications. Keep reading to learn more.
It could be worse than usual
Let’s look at two reasons the 2021–2022 flu season may be bad. One reason is human behavior. Tired of lockdowns, wearing masks and social distancing, many people want to get back to socializing in close quarters the way they did before. But since the flu and other respiratory viruses are spread through droplets in the air or on surfaces, those behaviors are likely to help such viruses spread.
“I do think with a greater number of individuals not wearing masks and not as much social distancing, there is definitely going to be an uptick in the common respiratory infections that we see seasonally,” says Allison Aiello, who studies the spread of infectious diseases at the University of North Carolina.
Another reason the upcoming flu season might be a bad one is explained by a theory about the human body’s immune response: The idea is that our immune response improves as we are annually exposed to viruses like influenza. These exposures may not make us sick, but they function as a reminder to our immune system to keep its defenses up. With mass social distancing during the last flu season, many of our children’s immune systems missed out on that annual reminder, and that may mean they’re not as prepared to fight those viruses this year.
But it could also be not so bad
That theory (that being exposed to viruses reminds our body to keep its defenses up) is just a theory, though. The period from the beginning of the pandemic to now “is a short period of time,” Aiello said. One season staying home from school may not negatively affect your child’s immune system at all. The severity of this flu season, then, may depend on the evolution of the virus.
The other factor that may mean the flu season isn’t too bad is what we collectively learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our experience with COVID may lead to behavior changes that work in our favor,” says epidemiologist Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. “People may be more willing to take influenza vaccines and to wear face masks or take other precautions to prevent transmission during the peak of the season.”
Either way, here’s what you can do
“Either we will have a very significant COVID surge, people will minimize their contacts and we will have less respiratory viruses, or people will be back to a more normal life, there will be some COVID but on top of that we will go back to having a flu surge (and an RSV) surge in children, and so on,” says Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer.
Whitty recommends that people brace themselves in case this coming flu and cold season turns out to be a bad one. For parents of infants and young children, flu prevention is critical; complications from flu can include pneumonia, ear infections and even brain dysfunction.
With that in mind, here are a few tips for preventing flu:
n Have children six months and older get the flu vaccine.
n If possible, arrange for childcare if you get sick so you don’t infect your child(ren).
n As soon as you notice flu symptoms in your child, take him or her to see a pediatrician. The pediatrician may be able to prescribe antiviral drugs, which, according to the CDC, can “make illness milder and shorten illness duration. They also may prevent serious flu complications.”
If you have questions about your child’s symptoms or are not sure how to proceed, visit Utah Valley Pediatrics’ “Is Your Child Sick?” portal. A dropdown menu lists many symptoms you might notice in your child; when you click on a symptom, you will find more information about the symptom and how best to proceed depending on the severity of what you are observing.
While it’s difficult to say for sure what the coming flu season will be like, what we do know is how to prevent illness and complications in ourselves and our children. Talk to your pediatrician about the best ways to protect your child, and enjoy getting back to school!