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What to Expect This Flu Season

Influenza—commonly known as the flu—is a highly contagious respiratory virus, and it is never something to take lightly. Every year, millions of Americans get sick with the flu.

There are three main types of influenza: A, B and C. Types A and B are most common. They are similar, but influenza B can pass only from human to human while influenza A can be found in many species, including humans, birds and pigs. Type C also causes the flu but has much less severe symptoms.

What’s New This Flu Season

Flu season in the United States peaked earlier than usual, says UNC pulmonologist and critical care specialist Subhashini Sellers, MD, and so far influenza B has been more common in the United States for the first time since the 1992-1993 season. While that’s good news for adults as influenza B typically results in milder symptoms than influenza A, influenza B can be particularly risky for children.

“Studies have shown that there is higher pediatric mortality for influenza B than influenza A,” Dr. Sellers says.

Dr. Sellers says it’s been one of the worst seasons in recent history in terms of number of people affected – the CDC estimates 9.7 million cases so far, but it has not been as severe in terms of hospitalization and deaths. This is most likely because influenza B is more predominant.

The exception to this is in pediatric populations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that there have been twice as many pediatric flu deaths so far this year than at the same time last year.

In addition, even in mild influenza seasons, thousands of people die from the flu. It’s not too late to get the flu shot.

Recent studies show that vaccination reduces the risk of flu by 40 to 60 percent; if you do get vaccinated and still get the flu, you will probably get less sick than you would have without the shot.

“It’s not too late to get vaccinated,” Dr. Sellers says, since the flu season lasts from October through May.

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. Don’t wait to call the doctor—treatment with antivirals works best when begun within 48 hours of getting sick.

Whether or not you take medication, 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. Don’t go to work or other public places where you can pass the flu to others.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you need to stay home at least 24 hours after you have become fever-free without the aid of medicine.

If you can’t see your doctor promptly or the office is closed, you can visit an urgent care clinic to be treated for the flu.

High-Risk Patients Should Take Antiviral Medication

Antiviral drugs are prescription medications that may help prevent flu complications or shorten the duration of the flu once you have it. People at high risk for complications from the flu should discuss antiviral treatment with their provider as soon as flu symptoms appear, or they can take it as a preventive measure “if they are in close contact with family members or others who get the flu,” Dr. Sellers says.

People at higher risk of complications include children younger than 2, adults 65 and older, pregnant or immediately postpartum women, residents of nursing homes, people with chronic illnesses such as asthma, lung disease and heart disease, and those with chronic immune-suppressing conditions such as diabetes and cancer.

Four antiviral drugs are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and recommended by the CDC to treat the flu this season:

  • Oseltamivir phosphate (Tamiflu)
  • Zanamivir (Relenza)
  • Peramivir (Rapivab)
  • Baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza)

If you think you have the flu, talk to your doctor. If you do not have a doctor, find one near you. UNC Health Care offers urgent care clinic locations across North Carolina. Download the UNC Health App to view urgent care wait times near you.