What You Need To Know About This Year’s Flu Season
Despite the un-seasonally warm weather gripping much of the U.S. in the first few weeks of autumn, cold weather is around the corner, which signals the beginning of the flu season. This infectious disease, technically called influenza, is often thought by many to be a cold on steroids.
In fact, the flu killed more than 3,600 people last year in the U.S. and in past years, as many 49,000. Millions more are debilitated annually with as many as 200,000 facing serious complications including pneumonia, which often require hospitalization. Your chances of getting flu range on average from 1 in 20 to 1 in 5, again depending on the particular year.
Flu is actually three diseases, all caused by viruses. Three kinds of viruses commonly circulate among people today, according to the Centers for Disease Control: two types of influenza A, H1N1 and H3N2, and influenza B viruses.
This Year’s Flu Season
This year’s flu season will be different than last year’s when less than 23 percent of the flu vaccine was effective, due to mutations in the virus. Newsweek reports that public health officials have made sure this year’s vaccine performs better. The CDC says a recent analysis of the flu strains making their way around the U.S. and elsewhere are working as planned.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said his year’s vaccine was reformulated to match mutational changes to these three dominant strains of the flu. Last year, the dominant strain—H3N2—mutated too much for the vaccine to work well, a phenomenon health experts called “viral drift.”
Another difference from last year’s flu season is that this year’s vaccination seems to be a better match with people who have already come down with the flu in the United States, reports the San Jose Mercury News Whether or not the vaccine is a perfect match, public health officials advise people to get their annual flu shot because it’s the best single thing you can do to protect yourself from the flu.
Current Flu Activity
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu activity is low to date across the United States, but outbreaks can begin in October. The virus can hit kids particularly hard: More than 20,000 children are hospitalized each year because of complications from the flu, reports USA Today. Last season, more than 140 deaths among children were attributed to influenza.
Dr. Robin Altman, chief of general pediatrics for Children’s & Women’s Physicians of Westchester, urges patients to get vaccinated now, since “it takes two weeks for the body to build up immunity.”
Who Should Get A Flu Shot?
The CDC and National Institutes of Health recommend everyone get a flu vaccination shot. But these groups are particularly at risk:
- children older than 6 months
- pregnant women
- adults older than 50
- people with long-term (chronic) illness or weak immune systems
For those whose fear of needles might discourage them from a vaccination, there’s good news. A nasal spray containing the vaccination is available and appropriate for most patients.
Cold Vs. Flu
Granted, the common cold and flu share many of the same symptoms, such as headache, congestion, ear aches, soar throat and cough. And both are highly contagious – cover your mouth when coughing and sneeze into your shirt or blouse if a tissue isn’t available. And wash, wash and wash your hands whenever you sneeze or cough.
There are, however, distinct differences that can signal the more serious flu, reports WebMD. These include:
- High Temperature – While some people may get a slight fever when they have a cold, most don’t. If you have the flu, you’ll probably run a temperature of 100-102 degrees or higher.
- Extreme Fatigue – With flu, you likely start off feeling extremely tired and achy all over. That fatigue and weakness may last for up to three weeks – or even longer in seniors and people with long-term (chronic) diseases or a weak immune system.
- Fast and Furious – Flu tends to come on very quickly, with high fever and fatigue, along with other cold-like symptoms. You’re fine one day and – wham! – you feel like a ton of bricks hit you. Colds often start slowly with a scratchy throat and then linger for weeks.
- Treatment – Flu is best treated with prescription antiviral drugs that work most effectively within 48 hours of the time symptoms start. Colds can be treated with a host of over-the-counter drugs, ranging from decongestants to cough suppressants, and antihistamines
“Flu season begins, but experts say this year’s vaccine should do the trick” by Tracy Seipel and Rebeca Parr, San Jose Mercury News, Sept. 30, 2015.
“Doctors anticipate nasty flu season” by Linda Lambroso, USA Today, Oct. 6, 2015.
“The 2015 Flu Vaccine Will Work Better Than Last Year’s, CDC Says,” by Jessica Firger, Newsweek, Sept. 18, 2015.
“Is it A Cold or the Flu?” Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, WebMD. January 9, 2015.