Flu season is underway and, if historical data are any indication, about to peak. (February tends to have the most flu cases.)
Fortunately, this flu season has been mild so far, but flu is never something to take lightly. Every year, millions of Americans get sick with the flu. Some become so sick they must be hospitalized; in the 2017-18 flu season, 79,000 people died of flu-related causes.
What’s New This Flu Season
“It’s nearly impossible to predict what the flu season will be like,” says Melissa B. Miller, PhD, director of the Clinical Molecular Microbiology Laboratory at UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill. “But so far we are seeing a mild influenza season, especially when compared to last year.”
“Most predictions are based on the most recent flu season in the Southern Hemisphere. The Southern Hemisphere had a relatively mild flu season in 2018, so most experts are expecting the 2018-19 flu season in the U.S. to be relatively mild,” Dr. Miller says.
A potentially mild season “does not change the recommendation for getting a flu shot,” Dr. Miller says. “Even in mild influenza seasons, there are thousands of deaths due to influenza.”
Viruses That Cause Flu
In humans, the flu is caused by two types of viruses: influenza A and B.
When people think of deadly flu, they might think of the 2009 H1N1 infection (the “swine flu”) that caused a pandemic and killed 151,700 to 575,400 people around the world.
H1N1 is a variation of the influenza A virus, as is H3N2; both are included in the flu vaccine. The vaccine also protects against one or two B strains of the flu, depending on the formulation. The first influenza A strains identified this season were H3N2, but now H1N1 is also circulating.
This year, flu vaccines have been updated to better match circulating viruses. In addition, the nasal spray flu vaccine is back as a recommended option for the 2018-19 season; it was not recommended during the last flu season.
What You Can Do to Stay Healthy
Although some might think getting sick is inevitable, it doesn’t have to be. Simple measures such as washing your hands regularly can help keep sickness at bay. Sneezing or coughing into your inner elbow—rather than your hand—can also help limit the spread of the flu virus.
But the most important step to prevent flu is getting a flu shot. In the 2016-17 flu season alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the flu vaccine prevented 5.3 million flu-related illnesses.
The CDC recommends everyone ages 6 months and older get the vaccine. It’s particularly important for people at high risk of complications, such as children younger than 5, adults 65 and older and pregnant women.
Remember, you need a flu shot each year; last year’s vaccine won’t protect you. Recent studies show the vaccine reduces the risk of catching the flu by about 40 to 60 percent when the vaccine is a good match for the viruses that are circulating. Most experts say it’s still too early to tell how effective this year’s vaccines are. But it’s definitely not too late to get the flu shot, since the flu season lasts from October through May.
While some people believe the flu shot will give you the flu, this is simply not true, because the vaccine does not contain live virus. The most common side effects of the flu shot are soreness, redness, tenderness or swelling where the vaccine was administered.
What to Do if You Get the Flu
If you’re experiencing moderate to severe flu symptoms, talk to your doctor. He or she might prescribe an antiviral medication, particularly if you are very sick or at high risk for complications. Don’t wait to call the doctor—treatment with antivirals works best when begun within 48 hours of getting sick.
Whether you take medication or not, stay home and rest (except to seek medical care, if needed). Do your best to avoid contact with others to keep from spreading the flu.
Talk to your doctor about getting your flu shot this season. If you don’t have a doctor, find one near you.