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We all know the moment: a little sniffle, a cough, and a tickle at the back of the throat. For most of the past two years, these symptoms have made people worry that they’re coming down with COVID-19. But not for long. With lockdown and masking restrictions loosening, and the imminent arrival of winter, flu season is about to come back in a big way. 

How Bad Will It Be?

Experts are warning that this year’s flu season could be quite bad. In 2020, the combination of lockdowns and widespread masking effectively blocked flu season from even occurring. That was good, considering that the seasonal flu can kill quite a few people every year. But the reduced population immunity after over a year without the flu could spark an early flu season—and one considerably nastier than usual.

Part of the reason for this is the return of children to schools. Not only do children remain infectious for longer, they spend a lot of time in environments that all but guarantee the spread of illnesses.  “Kids often are that first wave of transmission in a community,”  Lauren Ancel Meyers, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas at Austin, told AARP Magazine.  “They go to school … they spread the virus to one another, they bring it home and spread it to their families, and then it gets out into the community.”

In addition, hospitals have been running at or above their capacity for months, partially from COVID-19, and partially from people who were forced to delay care for months, Dr. Robert Klugman with UMass Memorial Medical Center told NPR. “Hospitals really don’t have any bandwidth to absorb an additional influx of acute respiratory infections. It’s going to be very challenging. Staffing is down for a variety of reasons, and there’s a national staffing shortage in terms of travelers and other folks…So it’s not a great situation if we were to see a major surge in respiratory infections this winter.”

The CDC is again recommending wearing face masks indoors, social distancing, and avoiding crowds, even for those fully vaccinated. Following those recommendations will also help suppress the flu.

How Effective Is This Year’s Flu Vaccine?

Experts have noted less genetic diversity among current flu viruses than usual, which means fewer mutations and a higher likelihood that current vaccines will be effective. All of this year’s approved flu vaccines offer protection against four strains, two of which are new compared to last year’s offering. At around 60% efficacy, the flu vaccines aren’t quite as effective as COVID-19 vaccines—but they’re still effective at preventing serious disease or death.

When People Should Get The Flu Vaccine

Ideally, as soon as possible. Respiratory illnesses that normally peak in winter, like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), have already seen an early surge after last year’s historic lows. The CDC recommends that all Americans older than 6 months get their vaccine by the end of October.

In addition, if you’re receiving a COVID-19 booster shot, you can get a flu vaccine at the same time—which isn’t just convenient, but might help prevent co-infections between the two diseases. Once you’re vaccinated, you can proceed safely in the knowledge that the tickle at the back of your throat won’t mean a trip to the hospital.