Flu season is always a beast. But this year, experts worry that the country may face a particularly brutal season.
In fact, about 20,000 people were hospitalized last week for the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly double the numbers from the week prior.
“Hospitalizations for flu continue to be the highest we have seen at this time of year in a decade,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a recent briefing, per Reuters.
In total, the CDC estimates that there have been 8.7 million illnesses, 78,000 hospitalizations, and 4,500 deaths from the flu this season. What’s even more concerning is that the flu isn’t the only infection you may encounter. Now, experts say we’re facing the threat of three different infections — colloquially called a “tridemic” or “tripledemic” — created by simultaneous surges of COVID, the flu, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
Some children’s hospitals are already overwhelmed and at capacity due to the RSV surge. And as stated earlier, flu rates are higher than usual for this time of year, according to the CDC. Plus, The New York Times reports that rates of improvement for COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have slowed. It’s all beginning to point in a worrisome direction.
“COVID cases, flu cases, and RSV cases are all starting to tick up,” confirms Dean Winslow, MD, an infectious-disease doctor at Stanford — but why is it happening now, and what can we do to protect ourselves from the tridemic?
What to Know About the Tridemic
Dr. Winslow says a tridemic of COVID-19, the flu, and RSV is not a major surprise to the medical community. “Wintertime in the Northern Hemisphere is when we see a larger rate of respiratory infections,” he tells POPSUGAR. “You’re indoors more, and with viruses that are spread by small-particle aerosols and droplets, you’re more likely to be exposed in an indoor environment.” Relaxed travel restrictions, decreased mask-wearing, and low rates of vaccination for the flu and COVID-19 (particularly the bivalent booster) are also playing a role in the increased spread of these illnesses, he adds. RSV, in particular, is very common — nearly all children get an RSV infection by their second birthday, according to the CDC — but may be surging right now as young, pandemic-born children go into restriction-free areas and are exposed for the first time, experts told CNN.
It’s worth noting that you’re unlikely to contract more than one of these viruses at the same time, Dr. Winslow says, because your body’s immune response from fighting off one of them should provide some “very short-term” protection from the others. That’s at least some good news, because coming down with just one of these viruses is taxing enough. RSV can lead to more severe conditions like bronchiolitis, an infection of the small airways in the lung, which is especially dangerous for small and premature infants. Immunocompromised adults are also at greater risk of experiencing RSV complications and more serious cases of COVID-19 and the flu. And from a broader perspective, the overlapping surges of COVID, the flu, and RSV have the potential to overwhelm healthcare services that are already under strain.
How to Protect Yourself During a Tridemic
Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 (including boosters) and the flu is the number one way to stay safe during a potential tridemic, Dr. Winslow says. With the holiday season comes lots of travel, parties, and indoor time, so it’s important to make your vaccine appointments ASAP. “Now’s the time to get the two vaccines that are available that will help protect against serious illness and hospitalization and death,” Dr. Winslow says. (There is no RSV vaccine currently available, although one is in development.)
For large gatherings, keep in mind “the more people one is exposed to, the more chance there is for respiratory virus transmission to occur,” infectious-disease expert Amesh Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University, says. Each event also has its own dynamics (e.g., the ventilation, the vaccination status, etc.) that affect the risk for attendees, Dr. Adalja adds.
It’s important to “encourage people to stay home when sick, wash hands frequently, and if [you’re at] high risk for severe disease, wear a mask in congregated indoor settings,” Dr. Adalja says. “For extremely high-risk individuals, they can ask people to test for COVID pre-event.”
It’s also a good idea to dine and socialize outdoors when possible. “A lot of us in infectious diseases are still personally being very careful,” Dr. Winslow says. “Those are just small, prudent steps that you can take to additionally protect yourselves and protect others.”
If you’re not feeling well, make sure to take a COVID-19 test or a flu test (available at most pharmacies) and to stay away from others to avoid further transmission. While some cases of COVID-19, RSV (especially in adults), and the flu can be managed at home, Dr. Winslow recommends going to a doctor if you’re experiencing a persistent high fever or shortness of breath, which are concerning symptoms experienced across all three illnesses.
For COVID-19, other signs to see a doctor include persistent pain or pressure in your chest, confusion, inability to wake up or stay awake, and discolored (bluish) skin, lips, or nail beds, according to the CDC. For the flu, see a doctor if you’re experiencing faintness, a severe sore throat, or a cough with lots of green or yellow mucus, according to UCSF Health. For RSV, the Mayo Clinic notes that warning signs to go to the doctor include bluish and discolored skin, lips, or nail beds in addition to high fever and difficulty breathing.
— Additional reporting by Alexis Jones