A fierce flu season that started early still seems to be hitting almost every corner of the country and sowing anxiety nationwide. The epidemic is far from over and may be among the worst in several years, health officials say.
But the latest update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not indicate a flu epidemic of historic or rare proportions — just one that could approach the severity of the last moderately severe flu season, in 2014-2015.
The flu is always dangerous, causing an estimated 9 million to 35 million illnesses, 140,000 to 710,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 to 56,000 deaths in the United States in a typical year, CDC says.
In a very atypical year, exactly 100 years ago, the United States saw the first waves of the worst modern flu pandemic, one that killed an estimated 675,000 Americans.
Here’s what you need to know:
Is there anything unusual about this year’s flu pattern?
CDC officials have said that flu season started early, in November. Then, in late December and early January, the epidemic appeared to be striking almost everywhere in the country at the same time — giving the agency’s flu map an unusually uniform look.
The illness remained “widespread” in 49 states and Puerto Rico (but not Washington, D.C., Hawaii or Guam), as of Jan. 13. Geographic spread is not a measure of severity, but most states were still seeing moderate to high flu activity and reports of flu-like illnesses were still rising nationwide, despite earlier hopes the epidemic had peaked.
“It’s a robust flu season,” said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
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Is there anything unusual about this year’s flu virus?
The most common flu strain this year is a type of influenza A called H3N2. It’s been around for decades, but doctors dread seasons in which it dominates because it tends to cause worse illnesses in already-vulnerable groups, including people over age 65 and children.
Flu vaccines also tend to be less effective against H3N2 than other flu viruses. Health officials have said that the current vaccine should be about 30% effective against it. Other flu strains could become more common as the season winds down, Plescia said.
Who is most at risk?
Hospitalization rates for flu this season are, as usual, highest among people over age 65, CDC reports. The next hardest-hit groups are adults age 50 to 64 and children under age four. Many of those hospitalized have other underlying conditions — heart disease, respiratory problems and obesity are being reported in many sick adults.
In sick children, asthma, neurological conditions, obesity and heart disease are being reported. Cases in which perfectly healthy young adults have died get a lot of publicity, but are much rarer, health officials say.
Have there been an unusual number of child flu deaths?
No. CDC tracks child deaths as one way of gauging a flu season’s severity. So far this year, 30 child deaths — including 10 in just the second week of January — have been reported. While tragic, that count is not out of line with early reports from previous years. Final counts were 148 in 2014-2015; 92 in 2015-2016; and 110 in 2016-2017.
Do hospitals and doctors have what they need to fight this year’s flu?
So far, there seem to be enough hospital beds, vaccines and antiviral drugs, though some hospitals have worried about running out of beds if the epidemic worsens, and some have reported shortages of IV bags, Plescia said. Some patients trying to fill anti-viral prescriptions may find they need to call more than one pharmacy, he said.
Is it true that the flu can spread through just breathing?
The conventional wisdom is that flu most often spreads in large droplets dispersed by coughs and sneezes, but one new study suggested smaller particles could transmit the virus through a mere breath. The official CDC word is that the virus can spread when infected people “cough, sneeze or talk” within six feet of other people. Less often, you might pick up flu viruses by touching a contaminated surface, then touching your nose or mouth, CDC says.
What can you do to protect yourself — and others?
There’s still time to get a flu shot. Flu seasons typically extend into spring, and the vaccine protects not just you, but the vulnerable people around you, Plescia said: “No one wants to be the cause of an infant or elderly person getting the flu.”
If you get flu symptoms — such as a sudden fever, cough, body aches and headache — check with your doctor. You might benefit from an anti-viral medication (those work just fine against this year’s H3N2 strain, testing shows) . Remember to cover your coughs and wash your hands. And if you are sick enough to suspect flu, stay home.Share: