Here’s what you need to do to protect yourself.
Every year, you’re encouraged to get a flu shot before flu season rolls around, and you may or may not actually take that advice. This year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wants you to know that, yes, you really should get that flu shot, even if you think it’s too late.
According to the CDC, there has been a “slow but steady” increase in reported flu cases in November and December, with numbers expected to increase still. The CDC is also tracking people who visit their doctor with flu-like illnesses and found that the rate of patients seeking care for the flu is now higher than normal.
Not only that, this flu season appears to be dominated by influenza A (aka H3N2), a more serious form of the flu. “When we see a flu season dominated by H3N2, it tends to be more severe,” board-certified infectious disease specialist Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, tells SELF. “We see more flu hospitalizations and deaths.”
Robert Korn, M.D., medical director at Northwell-GoHealth Urgent Care, tells SELF that flu activity this year is “widespread.” “Usually we aren’t able to get an accurate view of a particular season until it is over, however, so far this year the H3N2 strain is making people sicker than other strains of the virus,” he says.
People with the flu most commonly develop a fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, chills, fatigue, and body aches, although some may also have diarrhea and vomiting, the CDC says. Flu season typically peaks after the holidays, Adalja says, with an influx of cases in February. While seasonal flu viruses can be detected year-round, the CDC says cases are often seen October through May, with the most occurring between December and March.
If you haven’t gotten a flu shot yet, there’s still time. “The flu vaccine helps,” Marc Leavey, M.D., an internist at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center, tells SELF. “With many months to go on the current flu season, if one has not yet received a flu vaccine, they should absolutely should get one.” Korn agrees: “It’s still not too late to get a flu vaccine.” However, Adalja points out that it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to give you protection, so the earlier you can get it, the better. And, if you’re wondering, the virus any flu vaccine you get is inactive, meaning you absolutely can’t contract the flu from it.
If you’re pregnant and waffling on the shot, Yvonne Bohn, M.D., an ob/gyn at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells SELF that you definitely should get it. “When you’re pregnant, your immune system is already weakened because you’re carrying the fetus,” she explains. “Your system is depleted a little bit — as a result, you get much sicker, much longer, and it’s much more severe.” That’s why the flu shot is recommended for all pregnant women, regardless of how far along they are, she says.
While the flu vaccine is the biggest and most effective way to protect yourself, there are a few other, less-effective methods.
While the flu vaccine is the biggest and most effective way to protect yourself, there are a few other, less-effective methods. One is practicing good hand hygiene (i.e., washing your hands thoroughly and often) to minimize the risk of coming into contact with the flu virus, Leavey says. Bohn also recommends avoiding touching your nose, mouth, and eyes as much as possible.
Adalja says you can also try to stay away from crowded areas where people may be carrying the flu, although he admits that’s tough to accomplish. “It’s hard to minimize your risk other than getting the vaccine,” he says. “The flu is a very successful virus, and it can spread easily.” Some people with the flu have no symptoms at all, but those people are still contagious, he points out. And, for those who do actually develop symptoms, they’re contagious starting the day before they symptoms appear. “Those are some of the tactics this virus uses to be so prolific in its spread,” Adalja says.
If you have the flu or think you’re coming down with it, Leavey recommends staying home from work to limit exposure to other people and seeing your doctor. Antiviral medications can work if you take them within the first few days of getting the flu, he says, especially for the H3N2 virus. “Current strains shows that they are susceptible to those medications,” he says, adding that it’s also important to stay well-hydrated.
But experts stress that you really, really should get a flu shot if you haven’t already. “It’s important to remember that flu is something we have to deal with year-round,” Adalja says. “It’s one of the most prolific infectious diseases and will remain a threat.” So, getting your flu shot now can protect you during this flu season and from contracting the disease during other times of the year.