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Here's How to Protect Yourself During Respiratory Season

Typically, the fall and winter months are times when sickness increases and spreads more easily. This has been the case with respiratory viruses, especially influenza and, more recently, COVID-19. But this respiratory season may be different. Over the last two years, the public has undertaken preventive measures to help limit the spread of COVID-19. This has also helped prevent flu transmission. Now, as more people relax these precautions, disease is more likely to spread.

The good news is there are things you can do to help protect yourself and others. Here’s how:

1. Get your flu shot

Predictions about influenza season in the U.S. are based on what Australia and other countries recently experienced during their respiratory seasons—and this year hasn’t been a good one.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone six months and older to get a flu shot every year. There are some rare exceptions, and specific groups should get certain types of influenza vaccines.

People ages 65 years and older, who are immunocompromised, or who are pregnant, are at higher risk of experiencing serious complications from influenza. It’s important for these groups to talk to their health care provider before getting a flu shot.

It’s recommended to get a flu vaccine in September or October. That's because flu season generally starts in October and continues through March. "We want the flu vaccine to be present in the body long enough to give someone immunity through the entire season," says Kencee Graves, MD, an associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine and Chief Medical Officer for Inpatient Health at University of Utah Health. 

2. Get vaccinated against COVID-19

This is the time of year when we have typically started to see an increase in COVID-19 cases. That’s because more people are spending time indoors and spreading the virus to other people. In addition, the SARS-CoV-2 virus evolves and creates new variants. In the past, this is what has caused COVID-19 to become better at evading immune responses from vaccines or previous infection.

While COVID-19 vaccines continue to work well to protect against severe disease and hospitalization, they do not always protect against infection or mild illness. The updated Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 boosters are designed to protect against both the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and the most recent circulating variants.

"This updated booster provides a more specific antibody response against the most recent circulating variants and should better protect you," says Hannah Imlay, MD, an assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at U of U Health.

Is COVID-19 still a threat?

Despite a relaxation in prevention measures, COVID-19 is still sickening tens of thousands of people and killing hundreds of people a day in the United States. The difference now is that COVID-19 no longer requires a large-scale public health response. But the fact is, the virus will likely not go away. It’s important to still practice prevention measures around people who are at increased risk for severe disease or when COVID-19 community levels are high in your area.

"We know that vaccination has been very helpful over the course of the pandemic, particularly since the Omicron variant hit in the winter of 2021," Imlay says. "We’ve seen that the severity of disease has gone down, and there are multiple reasons for that."

Much research now supports the fact that COVID-19 vaccination prevents severe illness, hospitalization, and death. That’s what makes vaccination the single most important tool for providing protection against severe COVID-19, Imlay says.

3. Take preventative measures

While vaccination is your best line of defense against influenza and COVID-19, there are other respiratory viruses such as rhinovirus (common cold) and RSV. To help protect yourself, practice these prevention measures:

  • Frequently wash your hands
  • Improve ventilation
  • Wear a mask in crowded areas
  • Increase your distance from others
  • Stay home when sick
  • Get tested

"It’s important that we all do everything we can to maintain our health," Graves says. "And that includes getting vaccinated, staying home when you’re ill, and doing things to prevent disease transmission like washing your hands and wearing a mask in crowded areas."