Believe it or not, we did catch one break in 2020. Almost no flu.

Masking, distancing, handwashing, online schooling and working from home all combined to spare us the annual miseries that come with flu. But with schools, bars and restaurants all back in business, public health experts are not predicting a repeat of good flu fortune this year. In fact, things could get complicated.

During most flu seasons, hospitalization rates go up due to flu-related complications, from pneumonia to dehydration. Combine that with people being hospitalized for COVID, and it’s easy to see how the nation’s health care system could be overwhelmed.

Dr. Amin is in a white lab coat and is smiling into the camera
Dr. Ketan Amin
“It is going to be a tough season, especially with these COVID-19 concerns,” said Dr. Ketan Amin, a physician with Novant Health Presbyterian Internal Medicine. “Imagine — you could technically get infected with both COVID-19 and influenza.”

On its own, each virus can cause significant disease. When contracted together, the effects could be quite dangerous.

“Therefore, it is absolutely essential that everyone try to minimize their chances by getting vaccinated against both,” Amin said. “Also, continue to wear masks when you’re indoors or in crowded settings, wash your hands frequently, and avoid touching your face.”

Five steps to prepare for flu season

To help you protect yourself, your loved ones and your community, we asked Amin for some tips about how we can best prepare for flu season. He suggested the following steps:

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1. Get your flu shot.

Getting the yearly flu vaccine is the best way to protect against flu, Amin said. It can reduce the risk of illness, the rates of hospitalizations and flu-related deaths. A flu shot may make your arm sore for a few days, but rest assured: The vaccine will not give you the flu because it is made from inactivated influenza viruses.

The flu shot is effective for about six months, so getting vaccinated in October will ensure you’re protected until flu season ends. With rare exceptions, everyone from the age of 6 months on should receive the flu vaccine, according to the CDC. The flu shot is especially important for certain at-risk groups, including pregnant women, the elderly and people from communities in need.

An important note: Your best protection against COVID-19 is getting the COVID-19 vaccine — but that will not protect you against the flu. Likewise, the flu vaccine does not offer protection from COVID-19. And yes, you can get both shots at the same time.

Earlier in the pandemic, cautious public health officials recommended spacing the two out, but now say it’s fine to get both at the same time.

2. Stock your medicine cabinet …

It’s good to be prepared in case you or a family member come down with a flu or other virus, and your medicine cabinet is a great place to start. Discard old, expired medicines, and create a list of items to replace or replenish, including:

• Fever and pain relievers (acetaminophen, ibuprofen, etc.)
• A thermometer and extra batteries.
• A multisymptom flu-and-cold medicine.
• Cough syrup and throat lozenges.
• Hand sanitizer and tissues.

You might also want to consider elderberry extract. Taken early when you become sick, it may help shorten the severity and duration of your illness. And, if you or a family member are at higher risk of severe illness, you may want a pulse oximeter to monitor blood oxygen levels.

3. … and your pantry, too.

Stock your pantry with shelf-stable comfort foods and snacks. Think oatmeal or cream of wheat. Peanut butter offers protein and healthy fats, as does canned tuna.

It’s easy to become dehydrated when you have the flu, Amin said. So keep plenty of herbal teas, clear broths, 100% fruit juices and some good old-fashioned chicken soup on hand. And, to soothe sore throats, keep a box of frozen-fruit bars in your freezer.

4. Make a sick-day game plan

If you work outside the home, see how many sick days you have accrued or if you need to plan ahead for unpaid time off. And if working from home when illness strikes is not possible, line up friends and family to help, or look for sick-child day care programs in your area. One more reason to get the flu shot: reduce your chances of staying home sick and losing work pay.

The flu doesn’t spread as rapidly as COVID-19, but it’s important to stay home while recovering to protect yourself and others, Amin said. When can you safely return to work? At least 24 hours after your fever is gone or, if fever is not among your symptoms, at least four to five days after symptoms begin.

Plan on picking up some puzzles, DVDs and coloring books for kids who are sick and bored at home. And don’t forget to treat yourself — a few magazines, a new novel or scented bath salts can brighten a sick day.

5. Prioritize health year-round

You’ve heard it before: Healthy habits really pay off during cold and flu season.

Amin suggests a healthy diet of lean protein, fresh produce and whole grains. You may also want to talk to your physician about supplements and natural remedies that promote a balanced immune system, such as elderberry extract, vitamin D and garlic.

Physical activity and stress reduction techniques also ensure good health, as does a good night’s sleep. “Pushing through” and allowing yourself to get run down can weaken your immune system, so if you’re not feeling well, get as much rest as possible.