The 2017-2018 flu season is shaping up to become one of the worst in years. Record numbers of people getting sick and the rates of flu-related hospitalizations and deaths are also up. As of this writing, in San Diego County alone, 174 people have died from the flu or related complications. That’s nearly double the number of fatalities reported just two years ago.¹
So why is this flu season so bad?
The flu is a highly contagious viral respiratory disease. What’s commonly referred to as the “flu virus” is actually group of viruses, each of which can be broken down into subtypes, or strains. In humans, the flu is associated with Influenza A, Influenza B, and related strains. (Note: Influenza should not be confused with “stomach flu“, which happens when your stomach and intestines become inflamed and irritated due to bacteria, viruses, or parasites.)
When developing the flu vaccine for the coming season, officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other major health organizations try to anticipate which strains will be the most prevalent. This year’s vaccine offers protection against Influenza A H3N2 strain, pandemic H1N1-like strains, and Influenza B.
The most dominant strain this year, influenza A H3N2, is a particularly bad actor. The typical flu symptoms of fever, cough, congestion, aches, fatigue, are worse with H3N2. The chances of developing complications such as pneumonia, ear infection, bronchitis, and dehydration–or dying as a result of those complications–are also greater. H3N2 even has a nickname–the “Aussie flu”–since it was responsible for widespread outbreaks last year in Australia as well as the United Kingdom.
Generally, people age 65 and older or those with compromised immune systems are more likely to succumb to the flu. This year, a surprising number of otherwise healthy young people have died, including twenty children (one a twelve-month old infant), young moms, college students, and elite athletes.
Get a flu shot–it’s not too late!
Although flu season is well underway, health authorities still recommend that most people aged six months and older be vaccinated against the flu. Do this as soon as possible because it takes about two weeks for your body to build up enough antibodies to fight the flu.
Getting the flu shot doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get sick. But if you do, your symptoms may not be as severe or last as long.
The flu shot is especially recommended for high risk individuals, especially those who are:
- Are age 65 or above
- Have a chronic medical condition such as asthma, diabetes, or lung disease
- Are, or may be, pregnant
- Live with, or care for, others who are at higher risk.
Note: A small segment of the population should NOT get the flu shot. These include infants who are less than six months old and people with severe, life-threatening allergies to either the flu vaccine or its ingredients. People who are allergic to eggs or have had Guillain Barré syndrome should speak with their Primary Care Physician before getting a flu shot.
Flu shots are available through your Graybill Primary Care Physician and most retail drug stores. Those without health insurance can also visit their community or County health clinic.
What about anti-viral drugs?
The antiviral drug oseltamivir, which goes by the brand name Tamiflu®, has been shown in some studies to be effective in preventing some flu strains when taken within two days of infection. It is generally recommended for high risk populations, though, and the benefits are less certain for the general population. Shortages of Tamiflu have been reported in San Diego and throughout the country.
Adopt these healthy habits
Adopting these healthy habits will help you stay healthy during flu season and throughout the year.
- Wash your hands often with soap and warm or hot water for at least twenty seconds. If soap and water aren’t available use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Note that anti-bacterial soaps aren’t more effective since the flu is caused by a virus.
- Avoid close contact with sick people. If you’re the one who is sick, stay home at least 24 hours after your fever is gone unless you need medical attention or other necessities.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces that might be contaminated with flu germs or that are frequently touched, such as doorknobs, remote controls, computer keyboards, etc. Do this at home, work, and school.
- Use a tissue to cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, or when touching surfaces that might be contaminated such as elevator buttons or public restrooms. Dispose of the tissue in the trash then wash your hands.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
- Support your body’s immune system by making sure you get a good night’s sleep, drink plenty of water, and eat a healthy, balanced diet.
Is it a Cold or Flu?²
|Fever||Usual; lasts 3-4 days||Rare|
|Aches||Usual; often severe||Slight|
|Chest discomfort, cough||Common; can be severe||Mild to moderate; hacking cough|
- San Diego County Health and Human Services press release, “Flu deaths increase. Activity remains high in San Diego County” issued 1/24/18. Available at https://www.countynewscenter.com/flu-deaths-increase-activity-remains-high-in-san-diego/
- CDC. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/flu/consumer/symptoms.htm.