Flu season is here and it could be a nasty one
Rolling the dice on getting a flu shot may not be worth the gamble this winter. Early indicators point to some troubling signs that suggest that the United States may be in for a severe outbreak of influenza.
What happens in the Southern Hemisphere is often a preview of coming attractions for the United States. Influenza experts watch illness trends, like the prevalence and severity of influenza strains and the duration of the season carefully. Australia just experienced one of the worst flu seasons in recent memory, with 215,280 laboratory-confirmed cases, according to the Australian government health department. That is two and a half times more infections than at the same time last year.
Additionally, as of October 13, 504 people in Australia died from an illness associated with an influenza infection. That number may be low because not all death certificates list influenza as a contributing factor.
“If Australia has a really tough year, we usually tend to follow them,” said Mary Devlin, public health and wellness manager for the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod. “If they have seen an increase in illnesses and hospitalizations because of influenza, we are probably going to see the same thing.”
It looks like the U.S. is off to an early start. In the most recent flu report, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health confirmed the beginnings of statewide flu activity.
“The fact that the flu season has already started may indicate that we are headed for a tough year,” said Devlin. “In typical years, flu activity usually gets going in December. I’ve even seen it in the past where it’s started in the month of January. So we are a couple of months ahead.”
What’s at the heart of this outbreak? Despite wide-spread vaccination in Australia, the culprit seems to be strains of the H3N2 virus, which cause more severe disease and higher rates of hospitalizations. Vulnerable people, young children and the elderly, were hit especially hard.
Get Your Flu Shot
Influenza is a contagious upper respiratory infection that comes on suddenly with a fever of 100.8 and higher, body aches and lethargy lasting about a week. Coughing, sore throat and extreme fatigue are the hallmarks of the virus.
“Typically, the very young and the very old are at most risk from the flu,” said Devlin. “Also, people who already have respiratory illnesses, diabetes, certain cardiac conditions and anyone with a suppressed immune system need to be particularly careful.”
This year’s vaccine includes four strains of both type A and type B influenza, including H3N2.
“Every year the experts give their best scientific guess of what’s circulating. Viruses are living things and they do tend to drift and shift. Sometimes the ones they predict to be the most prevalent might not quite be what they end up experiencing,” she said.
So how can we protect ourselves this year? Optimally, its best to get vaccinated before flu season is underway. According to the CDC, it takes about two weeks for a robust immune response to provide maximum protection. So now is the time.
“Getting the flu shot, at a minimum, will help decrease the severity and duration of illness if not prevent it altogether,” she said.
And keeping yourself healthy also helps people at higher risk from getting the flu as well.
“Healthy people who get the flu shot and develop a strong immune response will protect those individuals who are more medically compromised and may not develop adequate immunity against the flu even though immunized. ” said Mary Devlin.
For the 2017 to 2018 season, the influenza vaccine is only available in the shot form. According to the CDC, FluMist, the nasal spray version does not provide adequate protection and is not being recommended this year.
Other Protective Measures
Here are some tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on how to stay healthy during flu season:
- Get an annual flu shot. It is recommended for almost everyone over the age of 6 months.
- Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
- While sick, limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them.
- If you are sick with flu-like illness, the CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities. (Your fever should be gone for 24 hours without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.)
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
- If you have flu like symptoms, call your doctor and ask about taking an antiviral medication like Tamiflu®.
Flu shots are available at all of Cape Cod Healthcare’s urgent care centers. Anyone with questions about getting the vaccine should talk to their doctor.