Each year more than 200,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized because of flu complications, and roughly 36,000 people die from them. Will this year be any different? Here's what health experts have to say, and what you can do to protect yourself.
What doctors are saying
Earlier reports predicted a severe flu season, but leading health officials now say these reports were probably overblown. "So far this year we have had very few reports of influenza—just sporadic cases, and otherwise there is no real indication of how this season is going to evolve yet," said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, head of the Global Influenza Programme at the World Health Organization (WHO) Headquarters, at a press conference in early October. Dr. Fukuda said the dire predictions might have stemmed from news about this year's flu vaccine, which contains three different strains of the flu virus from last year. That's not that unusual, though, since each year health experts identify the newest strains and update the flu vaccine to fight them. And there's good news about the vaccine supply: while in some years the flu vaccine has dwindled, this year's supply looks good.
How this year is different
What makes this year's flu season more complicated is the onset of swine flu, or H1N1 virus. The seasonal flu vaccine does not protect against the H1N1 virus. A seperate H1N1 vaccine has been fully developed and tested, and is currently being shipped out to distribution centers nationwide. Ask your healthcare provider about how to get vaccinated for the H1N1 virus.
Who's at risk
Anyone can get seasonal flu, but some people are more vulnerable than others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies these groups as being at high risk for serious complications:
- Children age six months and older
- Pregnant women
- Men and women age 50 and older
- People with chronic health conditions
- Nursing home residents
- Healthcare workers and caregivers of children too young to be vaccinated
What you should do
1. Get vaccinated
It's the single best form of prevention. The vaccine comes in two forms—a flu shot (injected in your arm), and a nasal spray. The shot contains dead flu viruses and is recommended for people age six months and up, regardless of medical conditions. The nasal spray, which contains live weakened flu viruses, is approved for healthy people age two to 49, except for pregnant women. Talk to your doctor if you're not sure which form you should have. No matter which form you take, try to get the vaccine early on in the flu season, as soon as it's available.
2. Avoid close contact with people who are sick
Experts are still debating whether wearing a face mask really helps, but do take care around crowds—especially if you're at high risk. If possible, you may want to rethink travel plans around January, when the flu season usually peaks.
3. Practice good health hygiene
Wash your hands frequently, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you sneeze, and keep your hands away from your face. And don't try to be a hero—if you're sick, stay home. You can pass the flu on to others up to a week after you first start to feel symptoms, so stay in bed and rest up. Once your fever has been gone for 24 hours, it's usually safe to go back to work.