We answer your questions about this terrible flu season.
The flu has been particularly bad in the United States this year, and national and state health agencies are still reporting remarkably high rates of infection. That means, even though we’re turning the corner into March, you still have a chance of catching the flu. But, you also still have the chance to put up your best defense.
With the flu in the news nearly every day, you might have questions about why the flu is so dangerous, why it’s worse this year, whether the flu shot was (or will be) effective, and how you can protect yourself and your family from the flu. We want to answer some of those questions here.
First, we want to connect you with the best sources for the latest news on the flu:
- FluView, the weekly flu report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- The state flu activity report from the Ohio Department of Health
Why has the flu been so bad this year?
“It’s hard to predict what a given flu season is going to be like because it’s such an unpredictable disease and can change so much,” says Laurie Hommema, MD, program director at the Riverside Family Practice Center. The formulation of the flu vaccine is determined by World Health Organization scientists, who do their best to predict which strains of the flu might be active in a coming season. The effectiveness of the flu vaccine is usually estimated around 50 to 60 percent, but experts say that the flu vaccine is about 10 percent effective this year.
This year’s 10 percent success rate is based on influenza A H3N2, a strong and stubborn strain of seasonal flu that causes worse disease and can thwart vaccines intended to stop it.
Why is the flu so dangerous?
“The flu virus can get deep in your lungs. Your immune system responds and you get mucus and fluids, and then other bacteria grows and develops and causes pneumonia,” says Glenn Williams, MD, medical director of OhioHealth Urgent Care. “In some cases, that bacteria will get into the bloodstream and it causes something called sepsis, which goes to your organs, and that can cause you to die.”
More than 80 children nationwide have died from the flu this season. In the state of Ohio, more than 7,000 people have been hospitalized with flu-related symptoms and three children have died. Williams says even otherwise healthy people can die from the flu, but those under 5 and over 65 face the greatest risk.
If I didn’t get a flu shot, should I still get one?
Absolutely. “If you haven’t had a flu shot yet, it’s not too late to get one now. The flu season tends to run from October or November through as late as May,” says Hommema.
Even if you end up getting the flu, having a flu shot can lessen the severity of your symptoms and even shorten the flu’s duration. Plus, the flu shot doesn’t just help prevent influenza in the people who get the shot. It also keeps the flu from spreading. “You’re protecting the public as well when you get your flu shot,” Hommema says.
But the flu shot wasn’t very effective this year. Is it still worth it?
Yes. Just because the vaccine wasn’t as effective this year “doesn’t mean that when you get that vaccine it won’t work at all,” says Williams. “It does help reduce the symptoms.” Williams says the vaccine not only reduces complications, but it also reduces the risk of mortality from influenza, and reducing complications is the overall goal of the shot. A shot with some protection is better than none at all. “Get it now because within two weeks it will show some advocacy in your body.”
Who should get a flu shot?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a flu shot for everyone 6 months and older. “You must be vaccinated if you are a child or you have children, if you’re elderly, or if you have underlying health issues,” Hommema says. “But it’s truly recommended that everyone’s vaccinated.”
What else can I do to avoid the flu?
- Wash your hands. Make sure that everyone in the home is washing their hands with soap and water frequently throughout the day, as well as coughing into their elbow and not their hands. Here are some tips for teaching proper handwashing to your child.
- Disinfect your home. Clean doorknobs, countertops, handles, remote controls, telephones, keyboards and toys with a diluted bleach solution or disinfectant wipes. The flu virus can live for up to 24 hours on those hard surfaces.
- Do the laundry. Wash clothes, bedsheets and towels in hot water often to kill germs, especially if someone sick has been using them. Germs thrive on wet surfaces, so make sure you are regularly cleaning your towels, sponges and dishrags.
- Run your humidifier. Studies have shown that flu germs survive longer and spread easier in dry conditions. Plus, using one in your home can help you breathe easier, especially when you’re sick.
- Designate a “sick room.” The flu spreads through coughs and sneezes and direct contact with sick people. If someone is sick in your home, keep them confined to a specific area and limit their contact to one caretaker to try to contain the virus. Have the ill person wear a mask, and others in the house can wear a mask as well.
Can I just tough the flu out at home?
Williams says he is seeing a slight decline in the number of flu patients visiting OhioHealth Urgent Care recently – but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t getting sick. Instead, some opt to not visit the doctor when symptoms arise, something he doesn’t recommend. The flu is serious business, so if you think your symptoms are more than a cold, call your primary care doctor or visit an urgent care. If you are seen within 48-hours of initial symptoms, you may be able to be prescribed Tamiflu.