You know the flu season is bad when you can’t find anyone to join you at happy hour, dinner, or the movies. They’re all begging off because they have the flu, or don’t want to catch it. All those ”maybe next week” responses underscore how bad the 2017-2018 flu season is shaping up. Public health officials are calling it the worst in recent years—and they warn that it may not have peaked.
Senior Planet checked in with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention along with an infectious disease specialist and an emergency room doctor to help us separate myth from fact—especially for older adults, one of the most vulnerable groups for flu complications.
So how bad is this year’s flu season?
As of mid-January, the CDC reported that flu is widespread in most of the U.S., as this map shows. “It came early and with a fury,” says Wally Ghurabi, DO, medical director of the Nethercutt Emergency Center, UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, of this year’s flu activity. Adults 60 -plus should be especially vigilant, he says, because no matter how great a shape you are in, or how healthy, ”the system has had wear and tear” and immunity is not as good as it once was. The predominant flu strain circulating this year is the H3N2, a type of influenza A, experts say. This strain caused misery in Australia during their winter, our summer. And now it’s here with us.
Flu seasons vary in intensity and length. Since 2010, the CDC says, flu has killed from 12,000 to 56,000 Americans annually. Hospitalizations can total up to 710,000 annually and about 9 to 35 million get sick with flu each year in the U.S.
What’s this about the flu vaccine not working this year?
It’s too soon to know how effective it is, since we’re in the midst of the season. However, it will probably be about as effective against the predominant H3N2 strain as last year—10 to 35%, says William Schaffner, MD, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University and a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. However, those effectiveness figures are misleading, he says, because they focus on preventing the disease entirely. So if you get the vaccine and come down with flu anyway, you are likely to have a milder case—and less likely to have complications, he says. (And if you get a different strain, it could likely be more effective.)
It’s probably too late to get vaccinated. I’ll just cross my fingers.
“If you haven’t been vaccinated, it is late but perhaps not too late,” Dr. Schaffner says. “Don’t linger,” he adds. “Go get vaccinated.” The vaccine takes about 2 weeks to get up to full strength. The latest CDC predictions say the flu season may not have peaked. Translation: you may be searching for happy hour partners for a month or more to come. Typically, flu season begins in October or November. It usually peaks between December and February, but can drag on until May. Older adults should know there are now two vaccines specially licensed for those age 65 and older, Dr. Schaffner says. One is a high dose and the other has an adjuvant in it, an immune stimulant. Both give the aging immune system more ”punch,” he says. Even if these ”super duper” vaccines aren’t available from your doctor or pharmacy, get whatever vaccine is available, Dr. Schaffner advises.
What is the best way to avoid getting the flu, besides the vaccine?
Yes, it sounds like the department of duh, but keeping away from sick people can help, says Dr.Ghurabi. That may be even more important, in light of new research from the University of Maryland suggesting it may be easier than experts had thought to spread the flu virus. Experts have commonly believed that flu is spread by exposure to droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze or by touching surfaces the virus has contaminated. However, the new research found that people with the flu contaminated the air around them with infectious virus just by simply breathing—no sneezing or coughing required.
If you do get the flu, what should you do?
Call your doctor to see if you are a candidate for the prescription-only anti-viral drugs (such as TamiFlu, Relenza, Rapivab), Dr. Schaffner says. While they are not miracle drugs, he says they can shorten the misery by a day or a half day. Best to start within 24 to 48 hours of symptoms coming on.
What else can you do to stay healthy during flu season?
Our doctors have these tips:
Wash your hands often and with soap—for 15 seconds or so.
Have fever reducers available you can treat yourself promptly.
Consider wearing a mask (from CVS or your own) when you’re out in a crowd to maintain your healthy status.
You can keep up on flu activity by visiting the CDC flu page, which has plentiful and updated information. Here’s a CDC page that focuses on anti-viral drugs. To educate yourself on other flu facts and to read sobering stories about flu complications, check out Families Fighting Flu.
If you live in Maryland and are under 70 years old you could take part in a clinical trial for a new vaccine. Full info (and there’s a lot of it) can be found at this website.