In past years, Ohio State students navigated the flu from late fall to early spring, but this year brings the threat of COVID-19 as well.
However, because of COVID-19 prevention practices, Dr. Hiten Patel, a family medicine physician at the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State, said preventing the flu may be easier than in previous years. Students can stay healthy from viruses, either the flu or COVID-19, by understanding and recognizing signs of infection and practicing good hygiene.
“Flu really wasn’t something that spread last year and a lot of that, we believe, the healthcare community, is due to the masking, the hand hygiene, as well as the social distancing, so doing all that will prevent transmission again this year,” Patel said.
Patel said influenza, commonly known as the flu, is a respiratory virus similar to general human coronaviruses and COVID-19. Transmission occurs when someone sneezes, coughs or takes a big breath, spreading virus droplets through the air.
According to the Ohio Department of Health , Ohio’s flu season can start as early as October and continue through March, with around 200,000 people hospitalized from the flu each year in the U.S.
Wearing a mask, avoiding close contact with sick individuals and frequent hand washing can prevent viruses such as COVID-19 and the flu, Patel said.
As for their differences, Patel said the flu shows symptoms closer to the onset of infection, while those who contract COVID-19 may not show symptoms at first.
“One big distinction between what COVID typically causes and what flu causes is sudden onset, more of the fever, headache, body aches,” Patel said. “As COVID tends to be a little bit more insidious, sometimes people feel a little tired, have some mild body aches, somewhat of a low grade fever and then they start developing some of the respiratory symptoms.”
Patel said even if students have overlapping general symptoms and feel they weren’t exposed to COVID-19, they should get tested for it to make sure they aren’t unknowingly transmitting the virus to others.
“If it is the flu and they’re able to find out, there is potentially a treatment for influenza,” Patel said. “If it’s COVID, then they certainly need to be isolated because the symptoms are somewhat indistinguishable, especially early on. It’s hard to tell where you were exposed or when you were exposed.”
Dr. Mark Conroy, emergency and sports medicine physician at the medical center, said properly taking care of the body can play a role in preventing sickness.
“At the same time you’re staying healthy in the winter, you’re getting enough sleep, eating healthy,” Conroy said. “Your body’s directing its resources elsewhere, trying to stay healthy as best as it can, and so you just don’t have that same energy level to perform at your highest.”
Patel said it is unclear when the optimal time to receive a flu shot is, but recommends getting it in October to allow for the development of antibodies two to four weeks after.
“We know flu season tends to peak sometime in December, January, February, and so if you get the shot by October, your body will develop the antibodies by the time the peak of the flu season hits,” Patel said.
Patel said the flu shot is at most pharmacies, and if students are established with a primary care doctor in Columbus or at the medical center, it should be available to them.
Conroy said recognizing symptoms is important for students when making decisions about interacting with others to prevent the flu and COVID-19 from spreading, especially in group settings.
“The most important thing is knowing and trusting everyone to stay home when you’re not feeling well,” Conroy said. “When you’re sick, you’re sick, and it’s your chance to stay home, rest and recover.