In short, yes.
The influenza virus circulates year-round, with flu season usually peaking between December and February.
“We usually start seeing influenza activity increasing around October and it can last through May,” said Emily Leedy, epidemiologist and health educator at Richland Public Health. “This year, Ohio (including Richland County) is experiencing a later flu season, with a higher number of influenza-associated hospitalizations in February and March.”
The Ohio Department of Health monitors circulating flu viruses and provides weekly summaries of influenza activity from October through May.
In 2017, flu contributed to 80,000 deaths in the U.S. (more than double the yearly average) and 145,000 deaths globally; yet, the percentage of people getting a flu vaccine has continued to decline, said Health Commissioner Martin Tremmel during the Eggs & Issues Breakfast earlier this year.
The first and most important step to preventing influenza is to get a yearly flu vaccine, said Leedy.
“Since the virus circulates throughout the year, you can still get influenza when it is not considered flu season. Although not very common, it is possible, especially if you have been traveling,” she said. “Hand-washing, staying home when you are sick, and covering your coughs and sneezes are prevention measures that are helpful no matter the time of year.”
Also, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. If you do, use a hand sanitizer. Always wash your hands after exiting from public areas (handling doors).
“I suggest a friendly fist bump as opposed to shaking hands,” said Reed Richmond, health educator and communications specialist at RPH.
Another common illness this time of year is the norovirus. Leedy said this virus is usually what’s considered the stomach flu, causing diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain.
“Norovirus is very contagious and is not killed by hand sanitizer, so hand-washing is really important, along with avoiding crowded places and others who are sick,” Leedy said.
Varicella (also known as chickenpox), is also more common in late winter and spring.
“Another thing to remember in spring is the risk of disease from contact with animals like chicks, ducks and rabbits,” Leedy said. “Along with limiting animal handling, hand-washing is the easiest way to prevent infection. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.”
Is it the flu or a cold?
What about deciphering whether it’s the flu or a cold?
Although influenza and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses, they are caused by different viruses. Symptoms of influenza include fever, cough, sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, headaches, and fatigue, while those with a cold are more likely to experience a runny or stuffy nose. Further, the cold does not usually lead to serious health problems like pneumonia or hospitalizations.
“Usually, the flu is worse than the common cold and symptoms are more intense,” Leedy said.
If you’re thinking about traveling anytime soon, Leedy has some advice.
“There are important things to keep in mind while traveling that all depend on factors like where you are going, how long you will be there, and what you will be doing,” she said.
First: make sure you’re up-to-date with routine vaccinations. Consultations are available with RPH’s travel nurse for location-specific recommendations (call 419-774-4700). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website also has information on what vaccinations may be recommended based on your travel destination.
“It is important to plan ahead for any travel, as it can take a few months to complete the series for some vaccinations,” Leedy said.