As if you weren't already worried about possibly contracting COVID-19, there's now a lot of buzz out there about "flurona," which sounds even worse. Don't panic: It's not a new variant or disease. It's actually just a new term for something we've been dealing with since the beginning of the pandemic.
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Here's what to know about flurona, including how concerned you should be and how to protect yourself.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
What Is Flurona?
Flurona is the term for when someone is co-infected with the novel coronavirus and the flu. In other words, it's when you come down with the flu and COVID-19 at the same time.
Despite how alarming that may sound, it's actually nothing new. "In the winter of 2020, when the pandemic was limited to China, many cases of simultaneous COVID and flu were detected," says David Cutler, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "When the pandemic spread to New York City in the spring of 2020, there were also hundreds of patients there testing positive for flu and COVID simultaneously."
Overall, a co-infection of the flu and COVID-19 was a very tiny percentage of the thousands of COVID cases then. However, it's starting to become more common as flu cases are rising in the U.S., per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It's important to recognize, however, that flurona itself is not a standalone disease, but rather the result of two viruses occurring at the same time.
What's more: Dr. Cutler says flurona is unlikely to change the trajectory of the pandemic. "Flu season occurs every winter in both the northern and southern hemispheres, but we've seen relatively few influenza cases because people have been masking, distancing and taking other measures to prevent COVID," he says.
Should We Be Concerned?
Any viral illness that affects the respiratory system should be taken seriously — both COVID-19, the flu and a potential co-infection in the form of flurona.
Shirin Peters, MD, internal medicine specialist and founder of Bethany Medical Clinic in New York, points out that the biggest concern in regard to a co-infection is that it could potentially do great damage to a person's immune system, depending on their body type and overall health. "So far, there is not enough data to suggest rates of hospitalization are higher for those infected with both," she says.
The major concern right now, Dr. Cutler says, is for unvaccinated people. "Both influenza and COVID can be effectively prevented with vaccines. However, some people — particularly children under 6 months who are not yet eligible for flu vaccines and children under 5 years who are not yet eligible for COVID vaccines — might be most susceptible to flurona," he says.
How to Protect Yourself Against Flurona
Some tried-and-true methods of supporting your immune system and being germ-conscious can come in handy when preventing any illness — and flurona is no exception. Here, doctors share some of the best tips for how to put your best foot forward to avoid flurona.
1. Get Vaccinated
Experts agree that vaccines are the most important layer of protection. Unfortunately, about 20 percent of eligible Americans have not received a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, per the CDC's COVID Data Tracker, let alone a booster shot. "Vaccines are safe, effective protection against illness, hospitalization and death and are not being used adequately," Dr. Cutler says.
In addition to being vaccinated, he recommends encouraging others around you to get vaccinated. "These are the people who might spread the infection," he says. "Convincing unvaccinated family, friends and co-workers to accept the COVID vaccines and flu vaccine is a great way to prevent each infection and reduce the risk of flurona."
2. Wear a Mask
After getting vaccinated, wearing a mask that fits well when you're in public is key to preventing the spread of germs, per the CDC. Choose a mask that covers your nose and mouth, fits snugly to your face and stays in place.
3. Try to Spend 10 to 30 minutes Outside Each Day
With shorter, colder days, it can be hard to find the motivation to spend time outside, but doing so can give you regular exposure to sunshine — our best source of immune-boosting vitamin D.
"The vitamin D that our bodies make from sun exposure is vital to our health, particularly around the winter season since there is an increased risk of getting sick as temperatures drop and we're quick to snuggle up indoors," Dr. Peters says.
Unfortunately, it's hard to glean enough vitamin D from your diet alone, so if you're not able to spend much time outdoors, she recommends taking a vitamin D supplement. There are lots of options for supplements, she says, and if you aren't a fan of swallowing pills, you could take a gummy, like Vitafusion D3 Gummies ($13.79, Walgreens.com).
4. Use a Humidifier
Wintertime usually means a sharp decline in humidity levels — both indoors and outdoors. Unfortunately, this is the perfect breeding ground for viruses such as the flu and COVID-19.
In fact, one September 2020 study in the Annual Review of Virology found viruses can travel further and remain stable for longer in drier air than when humidity levels are above 40 percent.
If you are prone to dry skin and eczema, Dr. Peters recommends investing in a humidifier to help maintain a relatively cool, neutral humidity environment in your home. (There are also a few simple ways to humidify a room without a humidifier.)
5. Get Enough Zinc
"The easiest way for someone to avoid their risk of this kind of co-infection would be to start incorporating some vitamins and minerals into their diet if they do not already," Dr. Peters says.
When it comes to COVID and flurona, she recommends amping up your intake of zinc. "In general, zinc is a necessity when it comes to normal development and functioning cells that are part of our immune system," she says.
In addition to eating zinc-rich foods such as red meat, beans, lentils, flax and cashews, she recommends her patients take a cold-shortening supplement with zinc, like Zicam ($8.99, Amazon.com) if they are feeling under the weather.
6. Get 7 to 9 Hours of Sleep Each Night
Sleep is one of our body's most basic functions, yet too few of us are getting the right amount —seven to nine hours each night, per the National Sleep Foundation.
According to CDC data, just 1 in 3 adults are meeting this recommendation. Research has linked insufficient sleep to an increased risk of catching a cold, and the same is true of viruses such as COVID, the flu and flurona, Dr. Peters says. She recommends aiming to get at least seven hours of sleep each night to keep your immune system in fighting condition.
7. Reduce Your Stress Level
While this is far easier said than done, especially during a global pandemic, Dr. Peters warns that stress increases the body's hormone cortisol, which, over time, can impair our immune response.
"Try not to let things get you down, as the more you stress and worry, the more the body reacts and can break down," she says. "Techniques like basic meditation, journaling and making time for rest can all help."
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
- CDC: "Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report (FluView)"
- CDC: "COVID Data Tracker"
- Annual Review of Virology: "Seasonality of Respiratory Viral Infections"
- National Sleep Foundation: "How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?"
- CDC: "A good night’s sleep is critical for good health"
- CDC: "Your Guide to Masks"