Community Impact Newspaper spoke with Dr. Sam Rolon, a physician at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Group Creekside Family Medicine in The Woodlands, about this year's upcoming flu season, who should receive influenza vaccinations and how to address possible flu cases amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is typically defined as flu season?

We actually see flu all year long nowadays. We used to not really see it for whatever reason, but nowadays, we see the peak from October through March. But still, last year, I saw it all the way through May [and] June. So, it still lingers a little bit with people traveling and just getting exposed to a minor pocket somewhere.

When would you advise people to get their flu shots this year?

For the general population, get it between mid- to late September through late October. ... Anytime that you can get it, the sooner, the better, just to make sure you’re vaccinated. ... Prevention is key this year for the same reason [as] when COVID[-19] started: ... ‘[getting] the surge down’ so that we don’t overburden the hospitals. ... We need to have hospital beds available, and we’re just trying to manage public health and make sure that we keep as many people healthy as possible so that we don’t have bad outcomes—so we don’t lose unnecessary, preventable lives from flu, from COVID[-19], from pneumonia, from whatever.

Are you expecting any uptick in cases from either flu or COVID-19 cases this fall and winter?

We’re pushing for prevention so we keep as many people healthy and alive and with us as possible. Some people say, ‘But I’m healthy; I’ve never had the flu.’ So, maybe you haven’t. Maybe you have, and you thought it was allergies, and you just exposed three other people that are close to you that are immunocompromised, and they get sick. So, everyone should get [vaccinated]. The only people who should talk to their doctor about maybe not getting it are people who have an actual, proven, diagnosed allergic reaction to something in the flu vaccine in the past.

How long does the flu vaccine last for?

It does wane. ... What we’re learning is that maybe that flu vaccine in everybody doesn’t actually cover it to the very end of the flu season. For the high points, ... it covers you. But in May, when you’re exposed to somebody who happens to have it, you might not have as strong and robust [an] immune response to it or immunity to the actual flu virus as you would have back in December.

Is there any concern about the availability of vaccines this year?

Every year, you read about doctors running out in their clinic, but nowadays, virtually every pharmacy in the area has a huge stockpile of influenza vaccinations, so that is a good backup. One thing that I am seeing, though, is that a lot of employers, because they have so many distant working or remote working employees—they might not be offering it this year. So, don’t rely on your company to provide it for you.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in increased attention to the flu and general preventative public health measures?

I think it is positive. I think it’s great because thousands of people die every year from the flu. Flu causes pneumonia. Pneumonia is a potentially deadly pulmonary infection. I think that’s one of the silver linings of having such a large media focus on COVID[-19] and on upper respiratory [illnesses]. Patients that might just have a cough and shortness of breath from allergies or asthma—they might get screened for COVID[-19], and they probably should be. They might get screened for flu this year, and they probably should be.

Aside from the shot, how can people prepare for flu season?

[They can do] the same things that we’re talking about with COVID[-19]: social distancing, wear a mask [and] wash your hands frequently throughout the day and especially before you touch your face or before you put anything in your mouth. ... Follow up with your doctor. Make sure that you're doing everything you know to do for your own health. ... We frequently get busy. We’re all working. We all have family and other responsibilities, and your own health goes on the back burner. Not this year.

What are the signs of the flu?

Weakness, fatigue, body aches, high fever, runny nose [and] burning eyes. A few patients that are adults have bellyaches and diarrhea; lots of kids end up with the bellyaches and GI symptoms with flu.

What should someone do if they believe they have the flu or may have been exposed?

Call your doctor. Come in. [Take] Tylenol [or] ibuprofen to control the fever. Hydrate with an electrolyte replacement as well as water. Just drown the flu. But get in with you doctor first to make sure you know how much water your system can tolerate. People with congestive heart failure [or] people with kidney failure—they cannot take tons of water, so you have to be very careful.

Can any side effects be expected from the flu vaccine?

The side effects that you can look forward to enjoying are a sore muscle, maybe a bruise where the needle went through the skin, maybe a little bit of achiness in your body, and maybe even a low-grade temperature [of] less than 100 degrees. Those might be from your immune response to the vaccine, and typically, that means you had an amazingly powerful, good immune response, and you’re going to carry your immunity through the entire season.

Do you have any other advice ahead of flu season?

Now is the time to get your physical. A lot of people do it after the first of the year. Everybody gets a gym membership, and everybody goes to see their doctor after the first of the year because they want to make sure they’re okay. But actually, I think now would probably be a better time. ... If you’re walking around with something going on in your body that isn't really screaming symptoms at you, diabetes doesn’t always have symptoms for patients. They don’t pick up on it. Thyroid problems—[they] don’t pick up on it. Low vitamin D—they don’t know. And all three of those things can make you more susceptible to the flu or other viruses.