What You Need to Know About the Flu

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease doctor, shares some helpful insight into this year's severe flu season and how you can protect yourself. 

Posted in , Jan 29, 2018

Flu Season 2018: Things To Know

If you’re worried about getting the flu, you’re not alone.

This season, the flu has been widespread – 49 states have reported outbreaks so far with the CDC estimating that 34 million Americans will contract the virus this year. In the news we’ve seen stories of deadly complications arising from the flu. Even seemingly healthy, young adults with no underlying conditions are being hospitalized because of the virus. So, is this the worst flu season in history?

The short answer is no.

While we’ve seen more stories about tragic cases of the flu, and the virus seems to be hitting the entire country at the same time, we’re not experiencing a pandemic, according to Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease doctor and scholar with John Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“People have a very short memory when it comes to flu season,” Dr. Adalja tells Guideposts.org. “The media has really keyed in on this season in a way that they haven't done so much since the pandemic. I think that's why there's the general impression that this season is one of the worst we have on record. It is a severe season but it's not worse than what we saw in 2014-2015 or 2003-2004. It's certainly not worse than the pandemic year of 2009-2010.”

While you shouldn’t panic about contracting the flu this year, you should take the necessary steps to protect yourself from the virus. That rings especially true for children and the elderly, who run the highest risk of having complications.

“We're dealing with a strain of Influenza A called H3N2,” Dr. Adalja explains. “Fevers are dominate in this strain and they tend to be more severe in general. They cause more hospitalizations, more deaths, especially among the elderly.”

How to Protect Yourself

The number one thing you can do to prevent contracting the flu? Get vaccinated.

“People still should get the flu vaccine. We're just hitting the peak of the flu season, which means we've got several more weeks of flu season to look forward to,” Dr. Adalja says. “The vaccine may not prevent a given individual from getting the flu but it is likely to protect that individual from getting a severe case of the flu. That person may not get pneumonia, may not need to be hospitalized, may not need to be in the ICU, may not need to be on a mechanical ventilator, may not die.”

A vaccine doesn’t insure you won’t get the flu, but it does help your immune system build up antibodies that fight whatever strain you do come in contact with. For the elderly, Dr. Adalja suggests an even stronger immunization.

“I recommend that the elderly get [an] alter-vaccine,” Dr. Adalja says. “One of those vaccines has a higher dose vaccine, so it increases more of the stimulants in the immune system. The other one is the vaccine we have coupled with an immune booster, it's called an adjuvant. Those two vaccines are specifically [valuable for] the elderly because we know they are more susceptible to the flu and those vaccines provide more protection than the ordinary flu vaccine does.”

Beyond getting vaccinated, Dr. Adalja recommends everyone practice good hygiene, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and wipe down countertops with disinfectant. Regularly washing your hands is another practical, everyday step you can take to avoid the flu.

That said, if someone in your home or at your workplace has the virus, it’s extremely difficult to avoid coming into contact with it.

“You have to remember that this virus is very adept at spreading between humans,” Dr. Adalja warns. “Even when you practice good hygiene, we still anticipate that you're going to get the flu because this virus is so prolific.”

What to Do if You Get the Flu

The flu causes body aches, fevers, upper respiratory issues, and can cause stomach problems as well, but Dr. Adalja says anyone who suspects they may have the flu should monitor their symptoms closely to make sure they’re not getting worse.

“Some of the signs to look for are an unremitting fever, an inability to do anything -- that someone is so fatigued and so put out with the flu that they can't really get out of bed -- or if somebody is experiencing shortness of breath,” Dr. Adalja says.

As for how to relieve symptoms, Dr. Adalja says people feeling ill should rest, hydrate, and take over-the-counter medications and anti-viral prescribed by doctors to help lessen the severity of the flu.

“The over-the-counter medications that are available are really symptom based,” Dr. Adalja says. “That said, I think that using drugs like acetaminophen or ibuprofen are important for controlling fever and they help you minimize some of the symptoms.”

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