The good, the bad and the ugly about this year’s flu season
Get your flu shot, wash your hands and cover that cough. Flu season is fast approaching, so it’s time to protect yourself before it hits.
“Flu shots are available right now,” says Luis Ostrosky-Zeichner, MD, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School and an expert in infectious disease. “It is best to get them as early as possible, because it takes two to three weeks to build up immunity to the influenza virus.”
So far, flu activity has been light, Ostrosky-Zeichner adds, but that could change. While the flu season can begin as early as October, it usually peaks in the United States in January or February and can continue as late as May. And infectious disease experts are closely watching a new strain of swine flu called H3N2v that has infected people in close contact with pigs at state fairs in the Midwest, killing one person and hospitalizing at least 16. While there has been some person-to-person spread of the virus, a widespread outbreak has not occurred.
Only time will tell when the flu season will begin and how severe it will be, given the unpredictable nature of the virus. In the meantime, here’s what we do know about the flu:
- You can protect yourself from getting the flu. Vaccinations are the best protection against the seasonal flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends flu shots for everyone who is at least 6 months of age. Healthy people who don’t like shots—and are between the ages of 2 and 49—can opt for the flu mist—a live-attenuated (weakened, but alive) vaccine administered through a nasal spray (click here for more on who should not use the flu mist). In addition to vaccinations, Ostrosky-Zeichner says the number one way to avoid getting the flu is to practice good hygiene. “Wash your hands frequently, cover your cough, stay at home when you are sick and don’t send your kids to day care if they are sick.”
- One shot and you’re covered.This year’s vaccine covers three influenza strains commonly circulating among people today, including influenza B viruses, influenza A (H1N1) viruses and influenza A (H3N2) viruses. In 18 of the last 22 U.S. influenza seasons, the viruses in the influenza vaccine have been well matched to those circulating. Even if the vaccine isn’t a good match, your body will still make antibodies that will help you fight different strains of the flu.
- Drugs help…if you get them soon enough. “Seek medical attention as soon as possible if you suspect you have the flu,” Ostrosky-Zeichner says. “Antiviral drugs in the first 48 hours can significantly reduce the symptoms of the flu and the amount of time you are contagious.” This flu season, the CDC recommends two U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved antiviral drugs—Tamiflu (generic name, oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir)—for treating the flu. Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to treat body aches and fever, Ostrosky-Zeichner says.
- Even the seasonal flu can kill.Seasonal flu-associated deaths in the United States over 30 years, ending in 2007, have ranged from about 3,000 per season to about 49,000 per season, according to the CDC.
- Children, the elderly, pregnant women and the sick are most at risk for developing flu complications. Pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections and ear infections are some of the flu-related complications that lead to hospitalization and in some cases, death. The flu is also bad news for people with weakened immune systems and people with chronic health problems, such as asthma and congestive heart failure, because it makes their condition worse. Vaccinations are especially important for these high-risk groups.
- The flu costs us serious time and money. The flu costs businesses approximately $10.4 billion in direct costs for hospitalizations and outpatient visits for adults. A new CDC study published in June found that parents taking care of kids with the flu had medical expenses ranging from under $300 to about $4,000 and missed between 11 and 73 hours of work. The flu can last a few days to a week, Ostrosky-Zeichner says, and people may continue to feel tired and weak for days later.
- The virus is unpredictable. Staying one step ahead of the flu is a challenge because the virus constantly changes from season to season. The flu virus may even change within the course of one flu season. And even though you can’t catch the same flu virus twice, you can get the flu more than one time a season if different strains are circulating. Unfortunately, last season’s flu shot won’t give you any immunity against this season’s flu viruses. So roll up your sleeves, grit your teeth and make the flu shot an annual tradition.
- Some mutations are deadly. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that a swine flu virus turned deadly when injected into ferrets—the mammal that develops the flu most like humans. The mutations in the study happened in the lab and don’t pose any current danger to humans. But experts say the results highlight how flu viruses that emerge in animals can easily mutate and become a threat to human populations. The 2009 H1N1 swine flu contained elements of pig, human and bird viruses.
- Pandemics are still possible. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic is over, but the threat of a pandemic still exists. When a brand new flu virus emerges, humans have little to no immunity against it. The virus spreads rapidly from person to person—a global disease outbreak called a pandemic. Thankfully, pandemics are rare. Four have happened since 1900: in 1918, 1957, 1968 and 2009. The 1918 pandemic was the deadliest, killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide. In comparison, the number of deaths in the U.S. from the 2009 H1N1 pandemic range from between 8,870 to 18,300 people. According to new estimates, the global death toll from H1N1 may be as high as 575,400.