The holiday season may be over, but flu season is still going strong. According to the latest report from the CDC, millions of people across the country have already felt the effects of the unpleasant and potentially dangerous respiratory illness.
As of Jan. 5, an estimated 6.2 to 7.3 million people have gotten sick with the flu, 2.9 to 3.5 million people have seen a doctor because of the flu, and 69,300 to 83,500 people have been hospitalized. The CDC gets these estimates by using a mathematical model based on rates of influenza-associated hospitalizations collected through a surveillance network covering about 27 million Americans. This model is used to estimate the burden of flu season each year.
The flu is a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. It can range from mild to severe and lead to complications, such as bacterial pneumonia, or worsen chronic conditions, like diabetes and congestive heart failure. Anyone can get the flu, but certain people are at higher risk of complications and death, including the elderly, infants, and those who are immunocompromised or have underlying health problems.
In the US, flu season typically lasts from October to March, with flu activity peaking between December and February. Last year’s flu season was particularly severe, one of the deadliest in the last 40 years. The 2017–18 flu season started and peaked early, and flu activity remained high across the US for a number of months. An estimated 80,000 people died, including 180 children, BuzzFeed News previously reported.
Getting a shot not only offers you some protection from the flu, it can also help protect vulnerable individuals, including people who cannot get vaccinated for medical and other reasons.
According to the CDC, the 2018–19 flu vaccine protects against influenza A/Michigan (H1N1), influenza A/Singapore (H3N2)–like virus, and influenza B Victoria lineage virus. There are many different types of flu viruses and they can mutate rapidly, so the vaccine is updated each year to best match the strains predicted to circulate during that season.
Last year’s flu vaccine included a strain of H3N2 that was not particularly well matched with the circulating strain, so it had a lower effectiveness of about 25%. However, the vaccine was more effective at protecting against the other circulating strains, so the overall vaccine effectiveness was 40% — which means it reduced your risk of seeing a doctor for a flu-like illness by 40%, according to the CDC.
The flu shot is not perfect — it’s about 60% effective, at best — but it is your best protection against the flu and its complications, including death. The flu shot can help keep people out of the hospital and saves lives.
If diagnosed early, antiviral drugs (such as Tamiflu or Xofluza) can be used to treat the flu and reduce the severity and length of symptoms. People who are at high risk for serious complications can benefit from antivirals and should see a doctor as soon as they get sick.
In addition to getting vaccinated, you can prevent the spread of flu with simple actions like washing your hands, not touching your face, covering your mouth and nose with your elbow (not your hand) when you cough or sneeze, and staying home if you are sick or until 24 hours after a fever has ended.
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