You may have seen it in the news or read it online but here at Westchester Health, we want to emphasize that this is a particularly bad year for the flu — one of the worst in years — and if you have not yet gotten a flu shot, you really should.
According to a recent article in The New York Times, due to an imperfect vaccine and steady cold weather, the flu is now widespread across the country. About 80% of the cases are the H3N2 strain, a particularly nasty one. It’s easier to catch than other strains and once you’ve got it, you get really sick. Also, this strain is particularly bad for children and the elderly.
The entire continental United States is experiencing widespread flu right now, the first time in the 13 years of the current tracking system that this has happened, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hospitals nationwide report clogged emergency rooms and pharmacies are experiencing shortages of over-the-counter and prescription flu remedies. And we’re just at the start of the flu season, which doesn’t end until May.
Experts, and all of us at Westchester Health, still recommend getting the flu shot even at this late date because the season still has 3 more months to go and because even when the shot fails to stop infection, it often prevents the worst complications: pneumonia and death.
Flu remains a major killer
Even in the absence of a pandemic, a severe flu year kills nearly 650,000 people worldwide, while a mild one kills just under 300,000, according to a recent study published in The Lancet.
In recent years, the CDC estimates, flu has killed about 12,000 Americans in mild years and 56,000 in moderately severe ones.
This flu season is particularly bad
This year’s flu season is shaping up to be an unusually bad one mainly because of 3 factors:
- The Northeast, Southeast and Midwest got hit with a bitterly cold stretch, causing more people to be crowded together inside. This helps the flu (and many other illnesses) spread much more quickly and easily.
- The H3N2 strain is more virulent than most.
- According to the scientific community, this year’s vaccine is particularly ineffective. This has caused many people to question whether they should still get a flu shot. The answer is an emphatic yes.
How the flu is spread
Flu is spread predominantly through droplets in the air, so if you are with 3-6 feet of someone who is infected, you are pretty likely to breathe in their germs in their exhaled breath. The virus will then latch onto the mucous membranes that line the back of your nose, throat and bronchial tubes. Next, the germs invade the epithelial cells that make up the mucous membranes, replicating and making even more virus, infecting adjacent cells.
This initial phase talks 1-4 days. In the beginning, you don’t feel sick. Most people don’t even know they have the flu.
Eventually, your body rallies its immune system, releasing proteins called interferons. This leads to fever, headache and muscular aches and pains — what usually distinguishes the flu from a normal cold.
5 best ways to fight the flu once you have it
- Drink fluids. This will lessen your headache and bolster your immune system. Be aware that the hard work your body is doing to fight the flu can lead to dehydration. (You may notice your urine getting darker.) Drink 1 cup of water or other liquid every hour, avoiding caffeine and alcohol.
- Sit in an elevated position, rather than lying flat. Although you want to rest, lying flat all the time collapses your lungs so you can’t cough as efficiently, trapping bacteria in your respiratory tract. If the virus destroys enough cells in your bronchial tubes, this creates openings for bacteria to get into your lungs, which can lead to pneumonia. This can be life-threatening, especially in older people and young children.
- Take Tamiflu (an antiviral drug), particularly if you are hospitalized, at high risk of complications of the flu, pregnant, or immunocompromised.
- Rest. As much as you can.
- Let in fresh air and sunlight into your room. Natural air ventilation dilutes the concentration of the flu germs by exchanging stale air with fresh, some say twice as much as fans do.
To prevent friends, family members and colleagues from getting sick too, keep to yourself until 48 hours with no fever and you’re feeling better.
How do scientists come up with each year’s flu shot?
Yes, it’s a bit of a guessing game, but with an educated guess. Each summer, infectious disease specialists try to make a best guess on which variants of the flu virus are likely to be most common in the U.S. in the coming year. One clue is to look at data from countries such as Australia (whose flu seasons starts before the U.S.). They then create a flu vaccine to counteract which virus (or combination of viruses) they think will be active during the coming U.S. winter.
This year, the scientists’ guess wasn’t far off. The current vaccine was formulated to fight H3N2, the strain that’s making the most people sick. It also is most effective against the H1N1 and B/Victoria strains, and some vaccines are protecting against a B/Yamagata strain.
Last year’s shot will not protect you this year
The flu virus is unstable and very good at mutating, and therefore changes each season. This means that the immunity you got from last year’s shot won’t protect you this year.
Even when you’re vaccinated, you can still get the flu
The flu shot is all about reducing your risk, not eliminating it. But even in years when the flu vaccine is less effective, it is still very important to get it.
The downside of getting a flu shot are almost nonexistent, and significant side effects are very rare. Even in a so-called ineffective year, the benefits greatly outweigh the harms.
What you can do to minimize your risk of flu
No vaccine is ever 100% perfect so it’s important to practice good hygiene to try and minimize your exposure to the flu and/or your ability to pass it along. This includes regular hand washing — especially before eating — and limiting your contact with others when either you or they are sick.
However, to truly minimize your chances of getting the flu this year, yes, you should get the flu shot. Every year.
Worried that you might have the flu? Come see us.
If you think you have the flu, please make an appointment to come in and see one of our Westchester Health physicians as soon as possible. We’ll examine you and if you do in fact have the flu, it’s important to start treatment right away before you get worse.
If you have not had the flu shot, we can give you one, but not if you are sick. Once you feel better, come back in for the vaccine. Our #1 goal is to help you stay healthy and prevent or alleviate illness, especially the flu, in any way we can. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.