We are all familiar with COVID these days, as most people in the U.S. have either had the virus or know someone who has. Further complicating the health landscape as we enter the winter months is a host of other viruses causing sickness, hospitalizations, and even deaths.
Dr. Malaika Stoll, senior medical director for Blue Shield of California, provides an update on what to look out for and tips for staying healthy this holiday season.
The flu season is upon us. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hospitalizations due to the flu are at a 10-year high, following very low levels during 2020 and 2021, when mask-wearing kept transmission down. Dr. Stoll says that the increase is likely due to our immune systems being unprepared since most people were wearing masks and socializing less, which reduced exposure to the flu last season.
RSV (respiratory syncytial virus)
This virus typically causes cold-like symptoms in older children and adults but can cause severe breathing difficulties in babies, young children, and compromised adults. Recent data from the SCAN Project (Sewer Coronavirus Alert Network) shows evidence of RSV in several California communities, which predicts future potential cases. As with the flu, our immune systems did not build up enough resistance to this virus because of lower levels in the community in years past. Dr. Stoll also points out that pregnant mothers might not have had the typical RSV exposure that creates antibodies that they pass on to unborn babies. These infants are then born with a vulnerability to RSV.
In some pockets of the U.S. and in some other countries, we are seeing increases in enterovirus infections. Dr. Stoll says these viruses can cause respiratory disease and a rash known as “Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease,” named for the rash that shows up on the palms, feet, and in the mouth.
Tips to safeguard your health
Staying healthy when all these viruses are around is a challenge, especially in winter when we are indoors more often, says Dr. Stoll. She recommends several actions we can take to stay as healthy as possible:
- Get vaccinated. Most COVID today is caused by variants that are targeted by the newer Bivalent Covid Booster. It is available for everyone aged six years and older. Click here for more information. Flu shots are widely available and highly recommended for protection. For convenience, the COVID booster and the flu shot can be given at the same time. A vaccine for RSV may be available in fall of 2023 but is not likely to be here for this upcoming season.
- Avoid people who are sick, and if you are sick yourself, do not expose others while you are symptomatic. Stay home from work or school. Any symptoms of illness - not just COVID-19 symptoms, but things like sniffles, a scratchy throat, or a simple cold - should give you pause. Over-the-counter antihistamines and fever reducers can help you manage symptoms.
- Limit your time in indoor spaces and with large crowds. The more people you are around, the more likely you are to come in contact with someone who is actively infected with a virus.
- Wear a mask if you are in high-transmission situations, or at high risk of becoming seriously ill with a virus. Masks have been proven to work to reduce the spread of many viruses. Also, follow local rules and guidance about mask-wearing, which will reflect the risks in your area. Frequent and thorough hand washing – for at least 20 seconds - is also a good way to prevent viral infections. Hand sanitizer should be used in situations where hand washing is unavailable.
- Take care of yourself. Keeping your immune system strong through adequate sleep and drinking enough fluids.
- If you are not feeling well, consider a virtual care visit with your provider or if your plan allows, a Teladoc visit to explain your symptoms and to get medical guidance. There are tests and treatments available for many of the viruses discussed. If you are having trouble breathing or staying hydrated, seek medical attention right away.
For many additional resources on how to stay healthy during the upcoming holiday season and the winter months, visit the Blue Shield of California’s "Be Well" webpage.