3Qs: What to know about this year's flu season

January 14, 2013 by Casey Bayer

Health offi­cials say this year's flu out­break is the worst in a decade, and Boston on Wednesday declared a public health emer­gency as the flu epi­demic wors­ened. Forty-​​one states are cur­rently expe­ri­encing wide­spread flu activity, and Mass­a­chu­setts is one of 29 states reporting high levels of flu-​​like ill­ness. We asked Mark Dou­glass, an asso­ciate clin­ical pro­fessor of phar­macy in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, how people can pro­tect them­selves from the flu and why they should get vac­ci­nated if they haven't already. 

What has accounted for the spike in flu activity this year, and how do health officials account for the new strain each year?

The rea­sons behind the increase in this year's flu activity are not defin­i­tively clear at this time and can be the result of sev­eral fac­tors. How­ever, we are seeing increased physi­cian office visits and hos­pi­tal­iza­tions which could be due to a more severe cir­cu­lating this year. Addi­tion­ally, there may sev­eral indi­vid­uals who either delayed or decided not to obtain the flu vac­cine after a very mild 2011–2012 flu season.

The com­po­si­tion of the vac­cine itself changes from year to year, and these changes are based on lab­o­ra­tory data and esti­mates pro­vided by experts at the Center for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion, and the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion on the flu pat­terns around the world.

The data that has been gath­ered so far for the 2012–13 flu season indi­cates that this year's flu vac­cine will pro­vide good pro­tec­tion for the most common strains of the cir­cu­lating flu virus.

What symptoms should people be on the lookout for, and how can people protect themselves from getting the flu?

Flu-​​like symp­toms can vary from person to person, but many people with the flu will expe­ri­ence a cough, sore throat, runny nose, chills or sweating, fever, headache, gen­eral body aches and pains, and a gen­eral feeling of fatigue or exhaus­tion. Most people can expect their flu symp­toms to per­sist from a few days or for up to two weeks. Because influenza is a virus and not a bac­teria,  antibi­otics do not work against the flu, so they should not be pre­scribed or taken for this condition.

The best pro­tec­tion against the flu is to min­i­mize your risk of coming into con­tact with the virus. The flu virus can easily be spread by coming into con­tact with con­t­a­m­i­nated sur­faces and  inhaling the aerosolized droplets from people coughing or sneezing nearby.

Here are some steps to min­i­mize your risk: Get a flu vac­cine; wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20–30 sec­onds or use gel hand san­i­tizers as an alter­na­tive; avoid touching your face to min­i­mize get­ting the virus through your mouth and nose; keep your dis­tance from those who are sick; and don't share common house­hold items like key­boards, remotes, or phones.

And remember, cover your nose and mouth when coughing, and stay home if you have the flu to avoid passing it on to others.

You noted that some people are reluctant to get the flu vaccine. What is recommended, and is it too late to get one now?

An annual influenza vac­cine is rec­om­mended for everyone over the age of six months and espe­cially those who are at high risk of devel­oping the flu, including chil­dren, the elderly, preg­nant women, or those with chronic diseases.

It is not too late to get the vac­cine. typ­i­cally begins in the fall and can per­sist into March and April, but can be as late as May. There is an intranasal for­mu­la­tion avail­able for those who may be squea­mish about needles.

Despite the ben­e­fits of the flu vac­cine, a common mis­con­cep­tion exists that the flu vac­cine causes the flu. This is simply false. Influenza vac­cine is man­u­fac­tured from a dead or inac­ti­vated form of the flu virus. Indi­vid­uals who develop the flu shortly after receiving the vac­cine could have con­tracted the flu just before, or shortly after, vac­cine admin­is­tra­tion. It is impor­tant to note that the max­imum ben­e­fits of the vac­cine can take up to two weeks to develop while the body estab­lishes immu­nity to the  strains.

Explore further: No Excuses: Flu vaccination myths addressed

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