This flu season is particularly scary – it is the most widespread in decades. Tens of thousands of people of all ages have been hospitalized with confirmed influenza since the season started earlyOctober with the number of pediatric deaths now totaling 63 as of the beginning of February. Different reasons account for the flu’s alarming rates this season. This year’s flu season started earlier than usual and the leading strain of flu this year is also particularly nasty. The H3N2 strain causes the most harmful outbreaks of illness and when this strain dominates, there are more associated illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths. Unfortunately, experts do not know when this season will end, and it can potentially last all the way until May.
Symptoms of influenza include: fevers, chills, muscle or body aches, headaches, tiredness. It can even include cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, and possibly vomiting and diarrhea especially in young children. Most patients infected with the flu virus tend to get better in a few days to less than two weeks. Some patients however can develop serious complications. In some people, the virus moves through the nose and throat and into the lungs, causing severe bacterial pneumonia in the lungs. And some patients that have good immune systems (our body’s main method to fighting illness) can develop too robust of a response, causing the person to not only fight the flu virus, but to also fight good cells in the body leading to them becoming very sick. Those most vulnerable to complications include young children, adults over the age of 65, pregnant women, those with lowered immune systems, and those with chronic health conditions such as diabetes or heart problems.
Physicians and the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) recommend that everyone aged 6 months and older receive a flu vaccine every year. Some people may have some soreness at the injection site and feel a little sick for a few days after the vaccine and it also takes about two weeks for the vaccine to take effect and produce a full immune response. But unfortunately, the influenza vaccine is never perfect. Before the flu season, health officials choose the strains for the vaccine manufacturers that they predict should be targeted for the season. Of course, it is extremely difficult to predict flawlessly and even when the vaccine is matched well to the virus, the effectiveness may only be 50-60%.
So, what can you do to protect yourself and your family from the flu?
Of course, wash your hands frequently, before meals and before touching your nose and face.
Launder bedding, wash dishes, and clean the humidifiers.
Using disinfectant wipes all over the home including on doorknobs and remote controls.
If you start to feel ill, stay home from work and keep your children home from school to prevent spreading the illness.
Despite the seemingly low effectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine, it is still important to get the flu vaccine if you still haven’t, as it will still protect you from other flu strains that are emerging or are currently out there.
If you feel you are getting flu symptoms, the antiviral drug Tamiflu given within 48 hours MAY help shorten the illness. However, data is very weak for any significant benefit and it has not been shown to decrease hospitalizations, complications or death.
If you aren’t sure if you have a cold or for the flu, the CDC has a chart that may help you sort out your symptoms at https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/coldflu.htm
See your doctor right away if you start to feel influenza symptoms. The CDC has urged physicians to start treatment right away in high risk patients even without laboratory testing with the flu swab.
Although the flu is more frightening this year, we all can do our part to keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy and do our best to prevent the spread of flu.
Originally from Orange County, California, Karen Tran-Harding is a radiology resident physician that found love, education, life lessons, and two corgis in the heart of the bluegrass. She has interest in medical media and education. She is a regular contributor to StantonMD and Everyday Medicine.