You may have heard about how dangerous the 2018 flu season is. Flu season spans from October through May every year, and so far this season, 30 children have died from the illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), older people, young children, pregnant women, and people with long-term health conditions are at greater risk for flu complications. Anyone can be affected, though, including those who got a flu shot. So how dangerous is this flu season, really? Here’s what you need to know about the symptoms, risks, and tips that can help you stay healthy.
How dangerous is the flu?
While the flu is common — the CDC estimates that millions of people get it every year — it’s still something you should take seriously. It can land you in the hospital and even kill you. Yes, older people and young children are more likely to experience severe cases, but it’s not unheard of for a generally healthy twentysomething to die from the flu, as the tragic case of a 21-year-old late last year shows. This is because the flu can lead to deadly complications, including pneumonia and sepsis.
It’s estimated that this season, there have been twice as many outpatient medical visits for influenza-like illness as there were at this time last year. “This year, the predominant virus strain is H3N2,” says Darria Long Gillespie, an ER doctor and senior vice president of clinical strategy at the health advice site Sharecare. “Not only is that virus strain less common, it also typically is linked with more severe cases and a greater number of complications of the flu.”
What symptoms should I watch out for?
Even if your case doesn’t require a doctor’s visit, the flu is no picnic. Symptoms include a cough, sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, headaches, fatigue, body or muscle aches, and fever (although not everyone who has the flu gets a fever). That said, you can’t know for sure that you have the flu unless you take a laboratory test.
Won’t the flu shot keep me from getting it?
Each year, researchers formulate a flu vaccine meant to protect against the three or four flu virus strains they think will be the most common during the upcoming season. But getting the vaccine doesn’t guarantee you won’t get the flu. After researchers identify the strains likely to cause the most trouble each year, viruses can mutate, and strains that researchers didn’t anticipate can become prevalent. This means that “making a vaccine for the flu is a constant moving target; it is difficult to make a vaccine that is a perfect match,” Long Gillespie says.
The CDC hasn’t yet released statistics on the effectiveness of this season’s vaccine, but it acknowledges that getting it is no guarantee you’ll avoid illness. (For reference, last season’s vaccine effectiveness was 39 percent).
Before you ask, yes, you should still get a flu shot. “Remember, the vaccine does two things: prevents you from getting the flu in the first place, and if you get it, reduces the severity,” Long Gillespie says. You’ll want all the help you can get in fighting the flu. Getting the vaccine is a smart step.
What else can I do to avoid the flu?
Even if you’re not pregnant, elderly, an infant, or dealing with chronic illness, it’s important to reduce your risk. Getting proper sleep, adequate nutrition, and regular exercise can all help keep your immune system strong. Long Gillespie says that healthy habits like these have been shown to ward off respiratory viruses like the flu.
You should also be hand-washing religiously (and don’t shy away from the Purell). “This is the season where you can be a complete germophobe and it’s entirely fine,” says Long Gillespie. “Wash your hands frequently, carry hand sanitizer, and either wash or sanitize after touching shared surfaces [and] before you eat or touch your face.”
An analysis in the BMJ last year, meanwhile, suggests that taking vitamin D can lower your risk of developing a respiratory infection, including the flu. Looking at data from 25 studies and over 10,000 participants, researchers observed that vitamin D supplements appeared to lower infection risk by about 10 percent in people who weren’t deficient in the vitamin and by about 50 percent in people who were. To learn whether you could benefit from more vitamin D, check out our guide to the sunshine vitamin.
What happens if I get the flu?
“For most of us, while the flu will make you feel miserable for a few days, you will get better on your own,” Long Gillespie says. If you feel like crap, don’t try to push through it by going to work or yoga — rest and hydration are your new best friends until you’re feeling better.
There are prescription antiviral drugs that can help treat the flu, but doctors usually don’t prescribe them for flu-afflicted but otherwise healthy adults. These drugs can shorten the time you’re sick and typically work best when taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. As with any drug, there are potential side effects, including nausea and vomiting. If you have flu symptoms and “you have a chronic condition such as asthma, diabetes, or autoimmune conditions, among many other chronic conditions, you may be a candidate” for an antiviral drug, Long Gillespie says, so check with your doctor.
You should also see a doctor if you experience confusion, shortness of breath, excessive lethargy, or a fever that hits 103 degrees or higher or doesn’t go away within a couple of days. When in doubt, seek medical attention so your condition doesn’t spiral.
What’s the deal with adenoviruses?
It’s worth noting that there’s another group of pathogens causing flu-like misery this season: adenoviruses, which can lead to anything from a cold or a sore throat to bronchitis, pneumonia, diarrhea, pink eye, and fever. Experts aren’t sure exactly how prevalent adenoviruses are, but the World Health Organization estimates that they cause two to five percent of all respiratory infections around the world.
While there’s no adenovirus vaccine currently available to civilians, you can use many of the same tactics to avoid getting an adenoviral infection as you use to avoid the flu: Follow healthy habits, wash your hands regularly, and avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
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