The flu has arrived! Hopefully you and your family have been vaccinated, are eating healthy, getting enough sleep and doing everything that you can to stay healthy this holiday season. But sometimes even doing everything in your power to protect your family is not always enough.
Every year top scientists study flu patterns and try to anticipate which 3 or 4 flu strains will be most severe that year. Sometimes they predict correctly and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the flu vaccine works great and sometimes it doesn’t protect as well as we’d hoped.
First, let’s get some flu facts straight. The flu is a lung illness, not a stomach bug. Many people mistakenly say they have “the flu” when they have vomiting and diarrhea, but that is not the actual flu (aka influenza virus).
The flu causes a high fever, cough and serious body aches. If you don’t have a fever and a cough, you don’t have the flu. In addition, the flu can cause sore throat, runny nose, headache and fatigue. You feel horrible, like you can’t get out of bed. Symptoms last for about a week or two, but some people get much sicker and need to be hospitalized. Unfortunately, the flu still causes tens of thousands of deaths a year.
The best way to protect your family from the flu is with a flu vaccine, either shot or nasal spray. The CDC and AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) recommend yearly flu vaccines for everyone 6 months of age and older. Flu Mist (nasal spray flu vaccine) is very popular in my office (and with my own kids) and can be given to healthy people without asthma or wheezing age 2 to 49 years.
This year, research showed that the Flu Mist is more effective than the shot in kids age 3 to 8. However, we also now know that the flu mist has not been found to be effective in protecting against last year’s H1N1 strain of the flu. Which likely means it won’t be effective against H1N1 this year either. Luckily we aren’t seeing much H1N1 right now in the U.S. Also, many of us may have some immunity to H1N1 because we unfortunately caught it during the severe H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak 5 years ago.
This year’s flu vaccine covers 2 flu A strains (H1N1 and H3N2) and 1 or 2 Flu B strains (depending on the vaccine you get). Although I would prefer to give everyone the flu vaccine that covers against all 4 strains (2 A strains and 2 B strains), there have been shortages of different types of flu vaccines this year, so the recommendation is to just get a flu vaccine. Any type of flu vaccine is better than not getting a flu vaccine.
And even though any type of flu vaccine is better than none, last week the CDC announced that this year’s flu vaccine doesn’t protect against the most common circulating strain of flu, H3N2. Really unfortunate since that is the strain we are seeing (around 80% of the current cases). The likely reason that the vaccine isn’t a good match is that the flu strain H3N2 has mutated since last season, which means it has slightly changed or drifted. That doesn’t mean that you should skip the flu vaccine. The flu vaccine may still protect partially or even fully against some H3N2 and there are other strains of the flu still covered in the vaccine.
Even with our wide spread vaccination campaigns and compliant patients, it’s looking to be a late, but potentially severe flu season. Unfortunately, the most common strain of the virus (H3N2) we are now seeing has been linked to higher rates of hospitalization and death, especially for those at high risk for complications—babies, young kids, anyone with asthma, heart problems or other chronic health conditions and the elderly.
So whether or not you received a flu vaccine (I’m still hoping you did), it’s important to keep in mind the symptoms—high fever, cough, body aches, headache, sore throat. If you think you or a family member has the flu, call or see your doctor right away. If caught early, antiviral medication can often be used to reduce symptoms and decrease chance the rest of your family will catch the flu.
As always, if you or anyone in your family is sick and has trouble breathing, can’t keep down fluids, has a fever for more than 4 days or looks really ill, seek medical attention right away. And babies under 3 months of age should always been seen by a medical professional if they are sick or have a fever of 100.4 or higher.
Here’s to a healthy holiday season!