Why We Are Having Such a Bad Flu Season and What You Can Do About It
Posted on February 7, 2018 by CHS
Most of us know someone who has been hit by the flu this winter and the flu season doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon. Before we go over why the flu season has been exceptionally devastating this year, it is important to understand how the flu virus works and what you can do to protect yourself and your family.
The flu virus, or influenza, can be separated into four groups: influenza A, influenza B, influenza C, and influenza D. According to Connor Bamford, a Virologist and Julien Amat, PhD Candidate both from the University of Glasgow, humans can only contract influenza A, B, and C. Influenza D is actually a virus that infects pigs and cows. Influenza A and B are the most worrisome of the flu viruses, as they can be further divided by the proteins they carry (H or N, such as the H1N1 strain) and are constantly changing in response to the antibodies that our immune systems produce to fight the virus.
Scientists are continuously researching and tracking all the viruses to create the best vaccine for the upcoming year, which is why flu vaccine is required every year to match the always-changing flu strains. According to This Year’s Awful Flu Season, Mapped, this is also why the flu vaccine is not 100% effective, as it is designed to protect “three or four strains of the A and B viruses that researchers believe will be the most common in a given year.” Flu viruses are constantly mutating and scientists have to make the best educated guess possible about which strains will be most prevalent that year. While scientists may not anticipate the correct strains every year, the vaccines do provide some protection, at a minimum, and herd immunity for those who are unable to receive vaccines due to medical, personal, or religious reasons. Even if you do get the flu after receiving the flu shot, your symptoms will likely be milder than if you hadn’t been vaccinated. The bottom line is that the flu vaccine can provide protection from the flu and can saves lives. Read more about the flu vaccine here.
How Do Vaccines Work?
Vaccines are created to prevent diseases by reducing the risk of infection. By working with the body’s natural defenses, vaccines help the human body safely develop immunity to diseases. If the virus invades the body, it multiplies, which will cause the body to become sick. The immune system then works to fight the infection and the body is left with a supply of cells that help recognize and fight that disease in the future. According to Immunizations Are for Everyone, vaccines are used to “help develop immunity by imitating an infection, but this “imitation” infection does not cause illness;” instead, it helps the immune system to react as it would with a real infection so that the body can create a supply of cells, or antibodies, to fight the flu. You cannot get the flu from a flu shot, but you might experience some side effects such as: fever, dizziness, or headaches. However, these minor discomforts are nothing compared to the symptoms of the flu. These side effects are the result of the body working hard to create antibodies to protect you. To read more about the side effects of a flu shot, click here.
The strain that is causing this flu season to be so bad is the H3N2 virus, which is a strain from the influenza A virus that is known to be more severe than other flu viruses. H3N2 can be particularly dangerous for the elderly and children. The H3N2 influenza is so troublesome because it is said to mutate at a faster rate than other viruses, making it more difficult to target with a vaccine. Additionally, less people have been previously exposed to H3N2 and, therefore, have not built up enough immunity to the virus. According to What Makes This Flu Season So Bad, “most influenza vaccines are grown in chicken eggs, and when this year’s vaccine was being incubated, the virus mutated while [the vaccine] was growing and became less effective.” According to the article, “scientists think it may only be about 30 percent effective against H3N2.” Although 30 percent may not seem like much, it is better than having no protection at all.
How Can You Prevent the Flu?
It is not too late to get the flu shot if you have not done so already. The flu season is far from over, as it can last into May. While this vaccine may only be 30 percent effective against H3N2, it can still protect against H1N1 or influenza B. Keep in mind that the flu shot isn’t immediate – it takes about a week or two for the vaccine to take effect. Other simple things you can do to prevent the flu are washing your hands regularly or using hand sanitizer in moderation, cover your mouth when coughing, use a humidifier to kill the virus faster, and stay home if you are feeling sick so that you recover and prevent the illness from spreading to other people.
What Can You Do if You Get The Flu?
Flu symptoms can vary and range in severity. However, most people will experience some or all of the following:
- Body aches
- Sore throat
- Minor congestion
- Vomiting and diarrhea – uncommon, occurs more frequently in children
If you show multiple symptoms from the list above, go see your doctor to get a diagnosis and treatment, if applicable. Your doctor may prescribe you with antiviral medication, such as Tamiflu or Relenza, which lessens the severity of your symptoms. However, antiviral medications are only effective when taken within 48 hours of getting sick. If you’ve been sick longer than that, your doctor may recommend over-the-counter medications instead. Stay home, rest, and drink plenty of fluids until you recover. Do not go back to work until at least 24 hours after your symptoms disappear. Check with your child’s school regarding their policy on returning to school after the flu. Once you have recovered from the flu, you should still get a flu shot if you haven’t done so since you can still be at risk of other strains of the flu. You can read more about what you can do when you have the flu, here.
How Long Am I Contagious?
Doctors universally agree that you are contagious from the day before your symptoms appear and remain contagious for approximately 5 to 7 days after you start feeling sick, children may spread the virus for a longer period of time. Dr. Daniel Vigil, a physician from UCLA explains “it’s that tickle in your throat and you’re thinking, ‘I hope this isn’t a cold or the flu coming on.’ That’s about the time when the contagious period starts.” Although you are less contagious after the third day, it doesn’t mean you are healthy enough to go back to work or go back to school just yet. Stay home and rest when you have a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher, your body aches and you have the chills, and you are coughing, sniffling, and sneezing constantly. Read more at SCPR.
- Am I contagious? A handy guide for cold and flu season
- Flu: why this year’s outbreak is one of the worst
- Flu Shot: Learn the Side Effects
- Immunizations are for everyone!
- The flu vaccine isn't perfect — but that doesn't mean you should skip the shot
- This Year’s Awful Flu Season, Mapped
- What Makes This Flu Season So Bad
- What You Should Know About H3N2 Flu