Flu season 2022 – what you need to know

By Rob Clancy, staff writer. Reviewed by Associate Professor Michelle Tate

After two years of unusually low influenza infections due to social distancing, flu season 2022 is shaping up as a bad one for Australia.

Influenza expert, Associate Professor Michelle Tate, answers some of the most frequently asked questions about flu and what we can expect in Australia for the 2022 flu season.

How do I know if I have the flu or just a bad cold?

If you have a runny nose, sore throat and mild to moderate discomfort it’s likely that you have the common cold, which is caused by viruses such as respiratory syncytial virus or rhinovirus.

If you are struck by a sudden fever, headache, chills, and fatigue or weakness you may have the flu, which is caused by influenza virus. Unlike a cold, the flu is very debilitating, which is likely to make you stay in bed for several days.

I have the flu – what do I do?

If you have the flu, you should speak to your doctor as soon as possible. Many people think that there is nothing medically available to treat the flu. However, doctors can prescribe anti-viral drugs that can make the infection milder and shorten the time you are sick – if taken within the first two days following the onset of symptoms.

You should also try to limit the spread of the virus to family and those around you by

  • Limiting your contact with other family members for at least 24 hours after fever subsides.
  • Wearing a mask, covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze and disposing of tissues.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces.

How dangerous is flu?

Severe influenza virus infections are associated with an overwhelming reaction by the immune system, resulting in what is called a ‘cytokine storm’. It is often an overreaction of the immune system rather than the virus itself that causes symptoms such as fever and sometimes fatal disease, including multi-organ failure.

In an average year around 800 people die from the flu in Victoria (3500 Australia), but the 2022 flu season is shaping up as above average for flu-related deaths, and this year’s flu appears to be having a larger than normal impact on children

So far in 2022, people aged 15–24 and children aged younger than 10 years have the highest influenza notification rates, and parents are being encouraged to have their children vaccinated.

Is it worth getting vaccinated against the flu?

3D graphical representation of the biology and structure of a generic influenza virus

Yes. The vaccine targets three of the most common types of the flu – type A H1N1 and H3N2, as well as a type B. Vaccination against the flu is particularly recommended for people with underlying conditions such as asthma, pregnant women, the elderly and health workers.

It’s even more worthwhile for the 2022 flu season, because herd immunity is low as we haven’t been exposed to flu the last couple of years, due to social distancing. Because of this, we are now seeing higher than normal numbers of cases.

Additionally, we are seeing cases of flu and Covid-19 together, which is referred to as ‘flurona’.

But I never get the flu, why should I have the flu vaccination?

This year all age groups are at increased risk of catching the flu. Vaccination can limit the severity of infection and the chances of requiring hospitalisation.

Will the flu vaccine make me sick?

The influenza vaccine does not contain any live virus but rather fragments of the virus, so it can’t cause flu.

The most common side effects from flu shots are soreness, redness, tenderness or swelling where the shot was given. Low-grade fever, headache and muscle aches also may occur 1-2 days after vaccination.

Why do I need to be vaccinated every year?

It is recommended that you get vaccinated every year, because immune protection declines over time, so an annual vaccination is needed to get the best protection against the flu.

Additionally, flu viruses are constantly changing, so the vaccine composition is reviewed each year and updated based on the specific viruses that are making people sick.

Tell us a bit about your influenza (flu) research

My research aims to create drugs to target damaging inflammation, so that we can treat the most serious cases of flu – the ones that develop into life-threatening disease.

Because we know that the flu virus can mutate to become resistant to existing anti-viral drugs, we have been working on creating new drugs which target the host immune system without being subject to the same strong selection pressures.

What lessons has COVID-19 taught us about where our research efforts should be concentrated?

The pandemic has shown us that we can’t rely on specific vaccines, which take time to develop and roll out. We need anti-inflammatory drugs that can be stockpiled for rapid use in the event of another pandemic, which is inevitable.

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