The flu season started earlier than usual this year, and most states are reporting continued and widespread outbreaks. Here are some commonly asked questions answered by a Johns Hopkins infectious disease specialist.
Q. Is it true that the flu season is turning out to be more severe than expected this year?
A. The flu season started off earlier and stronger than in several previous years, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says state-by-state reports of flu cases, hospitalizations and deaths are elevated. But it is still too early to tell if there will be more flu cases than is typical in the United States this flu season, which runs from October until May. That said, influenza is widespread in most states, so everyone should take precautions to avoid getting the flu.
Q. If people become sick with flu symptoms, should they go to an emergency room?
A. The flu can make you feel pretty lousy, but the best thing to do is first consult your personal doctor or health care provider. If you don’t have one, visit a community health clinic. Your personal health care provider is best able to determine, based on your symptoms, age and medical history, whether you need specialized care in an emergency department or hospital setting. Emergency departments are primarily set up to address urgent and critical medical issues.
Q. The flu vaccine available this year isn’t very effective. Why?
A. Flu vaccines are developed in advance to protect against several strains of flu virus that epidemiologists who track worldwide flu virus outbreaks do their best to predict. Unfortunately, the strain infecting most people this season — known as H3N2 — mutated, something viruses often do. As a result, the vaccine available this season isn’t as effective as hoped in protecting against the H3N2 strain.
Q. Does that mean the vaccine is useless? Should people still get it?
A. The vaccine still has significant value. Definitely ask your doctor or health care provider for a flu shot, because even this late in the season, it may still offer some protection or moderate the flu if you get it. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months or older get a flu shot every year because it is an effective way of boosting the immune system to fight circulating strains of flu virus. In addition, by protecting yourself, you may also help protect others who could be exposed if you don’t get a flu shot and come down with the flu.
Q. Other than a flu shot, what other steps can we take to keep from getting the flu?
A.Yes. Wash hands often or use alcohol-based hand gel, especially after shaking others’ hands or being around someone who has cold or flulike symptoms, such as high fever, cough and fatigue.
Q. Should people who have the flu take Tamiflu?
A. Antiviral drugs like Tamiflu are best and typically prescribed for those most at risk for serious flu complications, including the young, elderly, or those with other serious health conditions or compromised immune systems. Antivirals are only available by prescription and can’t be purchased over the counter. No one should take an antiviral unless a doctor specifically prescribes it. Most otherwise-healthy people can beat the flu by staying home and resting in bed, taking medicines to reduce fever and drinking plenty of water or other clear liquids to stay hydrated.
Q. What can health care workers do to keep themselves and patients healthy in flu season?
A. First and foremost, health care workers who have direct patient contact should get the flu vaccination. They also should practice good hand hygiene with frequent hand-washing or the application of sanitizing hand gel. Health care workers who feel sick with cold and flu symptoms should stay home and rest to avoid exposing patients to a flu or cold virus.