The best ways to prepare for this year’s flu season

Winter is coming so now is the time to prepare your body against contracting the flu. Here is how to protect against viruses this cold and flu season.

It is a common misconception that influenza, or the flu, is just like having a cold. And that is a real worry for respiratory health experts this flu season.

“The flu may be no worse than a common cold for some, but for a large number of people it can be serious,” says Professor Ian Barr, deputy director at the Doherty Institute’s WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza.

Flu season usually runs between May and October.

Prof Barr says 2017 and 2019 were “big years” for influenza but when Covid-19 arrived, influenza rates dropped dramatically.

“But, once again, 2022 and 2023 were quite big years for influenza. At the moment, it’s hard to predict what the 2024 season will be like,” he notes.

Serious effects of the flu

In 2022, about 1800 Australians were hospitalised due to influenza, according to government statistics. In 2023, that number almost doubled to just under 3500 cases.

In an average year, influenza leads to 1500 to 3000 deaths, which is more than the annual road toll, according to the Immunisation Coalition.

Alarmingly, in recent times, influenza vaccination rates have dropped — down by 20.6 per cent in South Australia, 19.5 per cent in NSW, 18.9 per cent in Victoria and 18.6 per cent in Queensland, according to Australian Vaccine Services.

“Less people got vaccinated and more people have ended up in hospital for something that is preventable,” Dr Nicole Higgins, of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, says.

“I think, post Covid-19, people have vaccine fatigue but they also don’t realise how serious influenza can be. It is a tricky virus.

“Influenza is smart and it evolves to evade our immune system. It adapts and changes, so the immunity we build up is no longer successful in preventing infection.”

Benefits of a flu jab

One of the first lines of defence against influenza is vaccination.

Because of influenza’s ability to change, each year health experts recommend a new vaccine.

In October, the Australian Influenza Vaccine Committee reviewed the latest data and recommended a vaccine for the 2024 season that protects against three key strains of influenza. A non-egg-based vaccine is available for Australians with egg allergy.

This year’s vaccine offers protection against two types of influenza A viruses and two types of influenza B viruses.

“Influenza vaccines perform a number of functions — they reduce your likelihood of contracting influenza and, if you get the virus, you are less likely to get as sick and so are less likely to go to hospital,” Pharmaceutical Society of Australia senior pharmacist Peter Guthrey says.

“By getting vaccinated, you may also help protect babies, young children and the older people around you from infection. In pregnancy, the influenza vaccine protects mother and baby in the first few months of life, too.”

Other illnesses in flu season

This influenza season, other viruses may also present risks to vulnerable people.

People over 65, those with asthma, diabetes or heart disease, pregnant women and children under five are especially vulnerable to the effects of these respiratory infections.

Covid-19 is still in communities and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is also a concern, Prof Barr says.

Just like influenza, colds and Covid-19, RSV symptoms include a runny nose, cough, wheezing, difficulty breathing and fever.

Like these other respiratory infections, it is also spread through droplets when someone coughs or sneezes, and by touching a surface where infected droplets land.

New preventatives for RSV are on the way but may not be available in Australia in time for the 2024 season.

“We see competition between these viruses,” Prof Barr says.

“Covid-19 rises and drops and influenza fills that space and then RSV pushes back influenza.

“In China recently we’ve seen an uptick in mycoplasma pneumonia and that’s another player to keep our eye on this winter. Each winter is a complex situation.”

Taking action to fight flu

Experts recommend everyone over the age of six months is vaccinated against the flu annually.

The vaccine is free for people aged 65 and over, pregnant women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, children aged six months to under five years, and those with some medical conditions.

The Queensland Government has also announced it will offer all state residents over the age of six months the influenza vaccine for free.

In the past couple of years, the influenza season has arrived early and peaked at the end of June, around six weeks earlier than usual.

The vaccine is usually available from late March.

“Usually, the recommendation is to try to get your vaccine before the start of the season but if you miss that window, there are still benefits with being vaccinated in June, July or August because influenza is still circulating,” Peter says.

“It’s not as seasonal as it used to be.”

Dr Higgins says it’s also important to stay home if you do feel unwell.

“If you are sick with a cough or runny nose, stay home, wear a mask and wash your hands frequently. You don’t have to soldier on and go to work. Because what might be a cold for you could be life-threatening for someone else,” she says.

5 tips for robust immunity

1. Exercise for 30 minutes most days of the week if you can

There is some evidence that physical activity can help support a healthy immune response to infections such as Covid-19.

2. Eat plenty of nutrient-rich foods

Nutrients such as vitamin C, zinc, selenium and iron support immunity.

Think strawberries, tomatoes, citrus fruits, broccoli, cabbage, red meat, chicken, nuts, seafood, dairy, brown rice and eggs.

3. Get enough sleep

Most adults need seven to nine hours sleep a night.

4. Don’t smoke

Smoking increases your chances of respiratory tract infections.

5. Try to manage stress

Too much of the stress hormone cortisol leads to inflammation and dampens the effectiveness of your immune system.

More health news:

Written by Sarah Marinos.