You’ve most likely heard that the flu season in the United States is in full swing, and Americans nationwide are feeling the effect. This year’s flu is off to its earliest start in nearly a decade -- about five weeks early -- and it’s spreading quickly across the country. But while there’s a lot of coverage and concern about the issue, we are not at an epidemic level, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
As the illness continues to spread and affect more people, experts say it’s important to know the facts and how to protect yourself.
What is the flu?
According to the CDC, influenza (the flu) is “a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses.” There are two main types of influenza virus, Type A and Type B, that spread in people each year. Over the course of one flu season, different types (A & B) and subtypes (influenza A) of influenza spread and cause illness. The CDC says the best way to prevent getting the flu is by getting vaccinated each year.
Impact this year
In past years, flu seasons when H3N2 (influenza A) was the dominant strain have been more severe, leading to more hospitalizations and deaths. According to the CDC, more than 75% of this season’s reported cases have been the H3N2 strain.
According to the CDC, 41 states now have widespread flu activity. So far this season, there have been 2,257 people hospitalized with laboratory-confirmed flu virus, and the virus has already killed 18 children.
Severity this season
While this year’s flu season could be the worst since the 2009 pandemic, it’s nowhere near the levels we experienced that year. This year’s season is considered to be “moderate to moderately severe,” but that makes it sound worse than it is. Last year’s flu season was actually the mildest on record, which makes this season seem worse than it really is, according to Vanderbilt University’s Dr. William Schaffner, who’s the past president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
Not too late to get a flu shot
Flu season usually doesn’t end until April or May in the United States, so if you haven’t done it already, get vaccinated! The best way to avoid getting the flu is to get a flu shot each year, especially this year. According to the CDC, this year’s vaccination matches the strains that are circulating around the country. In fact, more than 90% of the flu viruses that have been analyzed by the CDC are similar to the ones included in this year’s vaccine.
Get it now! The flu vaccine can take a couple of weeks to kick in and take effect, so the sooner you get it, the better. And while the vaccine is the best way to prevent the flu, it’s not perfect, as it does not protect against every possible strain of the virus.
How to protect yourself
The flu is a virus that spreads through contact, and it can spread up to six feet away. Germs can live on surfaces for up to 48 hours, which means they’re everywhere all the time, and you need to take precautions. Washing your hands thoroughly and often can help protect you from picking up contagious germs. Experts say in order to wash your hands sufficiently, you need to sing the full alphabet, or sing the happy birthday song twice! Yes, it sounds like a long time, but spending those extra 20 seconds at the sink is a whole lot better than getting the flu!
If you’re already sick
Oftentimes people may think they have the flu when they really just have a head cold, or another milder health issue. On the other hand, some people will get the flu even if they got a flu shot. But if you do get sick, that doesn’t mean you’re defenseless. A doctor can give you other medicines that will make the symptoms milder and could prevent complications from developing.
When to go to the hospital
Every year in the United States, the flu kills between 3,000 and 4,000 people, according to CDC data. But while the flu contributes to deaths, people often die of complications or problems caused by the flu.
But at the same time, it’s important to recognize when the symptoms are severe and when you should go to the hospital. According to CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, you should go to the hospital if you think you may have the flu and you start to feel any of the following symptoms:
- Sudden dizziness
- Difficulty breathing
- Pressure in chest area
- Flu symptoms improve, but then fever returns