A not-so-fun pandemic vocabulary word has begun circulating: “Flurona,” which refers to being sick with the flu and COVID-19 simultaneously. It cropped up after headlines surfaced about an unvaccinated patient in Israel contracting the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, reportedly the first documented case.
But it’s not technically the first. According to this article in The Atlantic, co-infections have existed since the beginning of the pandemic — in other words, this isn’t some terrifying new condition we need to get in a brace position for.
“The human body does an amazing job of fighting off infection. A phenomenon known as ‘viral interference’ reduces the chance of a cell infected with a virus from being infected by a second virus through release of interferons (chemicals that are involved in immunity). Though this doesn't eliminate the possibility of co-infection, it certainly suggests that it would be an exception rather than the norm,” says Ian Leber, MD, Chief Medical Officer of Sollis Health.
Considering that doctors and researchers have known that dual infections are possible, why is “Flurona” causing anxiety spikes now?
One reason: Health officials say that the convergence of the Omicron surge with rising influenza cases could make co-infections more common. People are traveling and going back to work and school — so naturally, viruses are given more opportunity to spread. Plus, the CDC reports “early signs that flu vaccination uptake is down this season compared to last.” Meaning, fewer people are getting the flu shot.
So while “Flurona” isn’t something to panic about, it would be smart to be cognizant of it, especially if you aren’t vaccinated against either the flu or the novel coronavirus.
Below, what to know and how to protect yourself:
Could Flurona become another pandemic?
If you're worried about the possibility of a twin-pandemic, rest assured that Flurona isn’t likely to become widespread. “Though we are approaching the peak of the traditional flu season in the northern hemisphere, case rates are relatively low and are tracking similarly to the 2018-19 flu season, which was relatively mild,” says Dr. Leber.
Plus, the CDC reports “that the predominant influenza strain this season is Type A(H3N2) which is covered in this year's multivalent flu vaccine,” assures Dr. Leber. “Those two factors, along with the continued social distancing and mask-wearing practices suggest that an epidemic of Flurona is unlikely to occur.”
How severe are Flurona co-infections?
It’s unclear since many cases have reportedly gone unnoticed and research is still ongoing. Frank Esper, MD, a physician at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Center for Pediatric Infectious Diseases, told USAToday that he expects “to see plenty of co-infections going forward, but [doesn’t] see anything that suggests it makes COVID-19 infections worse.”
However, “if you are unfortunate enough to contract both infections simultaneously, there is an increased risk of severe adverse effects on the lungs such as severe pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), both of which negatively impact breathing,” says Dr. Leber, adding that the biggest concern is for those “at the extremes of age (very young or very old) who historically have higher morbidity risks from influenza.”
The encouraging news is that we now have medicines for both viral pathogens, explains Dr. Esper. Tamiflu has long been used to treat influenza and research demonstrates Remdesivir is a safe and effective COVID-19 treatment.
What are Flurona symptoms?
Both coronavirus and influenza are respiratory infections, so they share similar symptoms, including fever, coughing, fatigue, runny nose, sore throat, diarrhea and body aches. While both viruses can be fatal, severity depends on individual health.
How is Flurona spread?
According to the World Health Organization, both viruses are transmitted in a similar manner: aerosols and droplets spread by coughing, sneezing, speaking, singing or breathing — all the more reason to continue wearing masks.
Masking up not only helps you avoid contracting COVID-19, but it can also help prevent you from getting the flu or both illnesses simultaneously.
RELATED: Why Everyone Should Wear a Face Mask
Who is most at risk for Flurona?
"There are certain populations that may be at higher risk for Flurona,” says Dr. Leber. “Those who have compromised immune systems (either due to chronic medical conditions like cancer, diabetes), those who take medications that suppress the immune system (steroids, biologic agents for Crohn's disease or rheumatoid arthritis, chemotherapy), young infants with immature immune systems, the elderly, and those who handicap their immune system by not getting vaccinated for influenza and COVID-19.”
How can I protect myself from getting a dual-infection?
Health officials continue to stress that the best protection from a dual infection is getting vaccinated. Ongoing research demonstrates the COVID-19 vaccines’ effectiveness against severe infection and death, even when breakthrough infections happen.
Says Dr. Leber: “There are no medical reasons that prevent you from getting both vaccines at the same time. The only caveat is that you should get each in a separate arm.”
That said, many functional medicine physicians, such as THE WELL Chief Medical Officer, Frank Lipman, MD, prefer to space vaccines out. His east-meets-west perspective on vaccines relates to their potential efficacy — while he came out in favor of the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Lipman historically takes a more skeptical view of the flu vaccine.
However, since we now know that this year’s flu vaccine formulation seems to be effective against the most common strain, it may make sense to get it if you’re worried about getting really ill. “Still, I’d get them at least a few weeks apart, if possible, so that your immune system isn’t being overly stimulated,” says Dr. Lipman, who emphasizes the importance of optimizing your natural immune function as much as you can. (Here are 30 ways to strengthen your immunity.)
“Prioritize taking care of yourself — that means managing stress, getting adequate sleep, caring for your mental wellbeing, exercising and fueling your body with the nutrients it needs,” says Jordan Crofton, FNP, Director of Patient Care at THE WELL.