It’s been another rough year for the flu here in the US. Amid rising global fears of the quickly spreading Coronavirus, it’s still the flu that most of us should be more concerned about. This year’s flu season started unusually earlier than most, with cases beginning to appear as early as October. We’re in the thick of it now, and hopefully, flu will start to decline over the next month as we move into spring. Until then, though, we’re bringing you the information you need to stay healthy—here’s our guide to everything you need to know about this year’s flu season.
How to Tell if it’s the Flu
It’s normal for you or your kids to wake up one day feeling less than stellar during the winter months. It happens to everyone from time to time. But how can you tell if it’s the flu or just one of the other yucky viruses going around? According to the Centers for Disease Control, “flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms are more intense.” Another hallmark? The flu tends to come on abruptly, while a cold usually ramps up more slowly. If you’re suddenly feeling like you got hit by a bus and you’ve spiked a fever out of nowhere, there’s a really good chance you’ve got the flu.
This Year’s Flu Season
So why are so many people getting hit with the flu this year? It seems like we hear lots of news stories about how more people than ever are getting vaccinated for the flu. The problem is, this year’s vaccine wasn’t a great match for the flu B virus, which dominated early on (typically we see much more flu A activity than B, especially at the start of the flu season). In an article for WebMD, William Schaffner, MD, a professor of infectious diseases and preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, said, “This season, that whole paradigm has been turned on its head. This year is way odd.”
How the Flu Vaccine Works
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get a flu shot. It simply means that some seasons, it’s a better match for the circulating viruses than others. And this year, it was less effective than in other years. And there isn’t really a great way to predict that, though interestingly, we can get a bit of a glimpse into our upcoming flu season by taking a look at Australia’s flu season.
That’s thanks mostly to the fact that they have opposite seasons. So if, like in this year’s case, Australia has a particularly virulent flu season, it’s time to gird our loins, because there’s a good chance it’ll be similar for the US. Sadly, this doesn’t lend any additional effectiveness to the current season’s batch of flu vaccines, since they’re already formulated by this point.
How does the flu vaccine work? It’s a bit of a scientific guessing game. Each year, scientists attempt to predict which strains of the flu will be the hardest hitting. Then, they include those strains in the vaccination in an attempt to keep the largest number of people safe from the most prevalent viruses. But in seasons like this one, where flu B was much more common than flu A, we have to rely on other measures of staying healthy in addition to the flu vaccination. Let’s discuss those below.
How to Treat and Avoid the Flu
Of course, the first line of defense against the flu is to get your flu shot every year. The CDC recommends you try to get yours by the end of October for the best protection against the flu. The flu shot is beneficial even if it’s not a perfect match for the circulating strains because it can still work to lessen the severity of symptoms if you do happen to come down with the flu.
Past that, though, the best thing you can do is practice good hand washing techniques. This is key because it prevents the spread of the flu virus if you happen to come into contact with an infected surface (public restrooms, grocery carts, door handles, etc). And if you are unlucky enough to catch the flu, it’s important to see your doctor right at the start of your symptoms. Why? Because antiviral medication like Tamiflu can shorten the duration of the virus, as well as make your symptoms a bit more bearable. But, in order to be effective, Tamiflu and other antivirals should be administered within 24-48 hours of the onset of symptoms.