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8 Things You Should Know About this Year’s Flu

Categories: Public Health Partners, U.S. Disease Outbreaks

A sneeze in progress

This year’s flu season hit the U.S. early and hard, with most of the country now experiencing high levels of flu activity. The flu should not be taken lightly – it sends, on average, 200,000 Americans to the hospital each year and kills thousands to tens of thousands of people depending on the severity of the season. CDC wants to make sure people know how to reduce their risk of getting sick – or if they are sick, when to seek medical care and how to avoid spreading germs to others.

Here are eight things you should know about this year’s flu:

1. The flu is here and it’s severely impacting seniors.

While the 2011-2012 flu season began late and was mild compared to previous seasons, the 2012-2013 flu season started early and is hitting hard – especially people who are age 65 or older. People in this age group are most likely to get seriously ill, be hospitalized, and die from flu. In addition, this year’s predominant flu virus is influenza A (H3N2), which can cause more serious illness compared to other subtypes.

2. The flu vaccine is your best protection against the flu.

Almost everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu vaccine each year. Although the flu vaccine is far from perfect – early estimates published in January found that people who got this season’s vaccine were about 60 percent less likely to get the flu and have to see a doctor – it is the best way to prevent getting sick. Some people may not respond as well to the vaccine as others and might get sick even if they do get vaccinated. This seems to be true mostly for people with weakened immune systems, which can include people who are age 65 or older.

 3. It’s still not too late to get the flu vaccine.

CDC recommends that people get vaccinated against the flu as long as flu viruses are circulating. Flu seasons are unpredictable and can begin as early as October, and substantial activity can occur as late as May. Vaccination is especially important for people at a higher risk for developing flu complications – seniors, young children, pregnant women, and people with certain chronic health conditions like asthma, heart disease, and diabetes. Do keep in mind that it takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body that provide protection against the flu. Vaccine is still available, though it may be more difficult to find in some areas. For a flu vaccine locator, click here.

4.  You can’t get the flu from a flu vaccine.

The viruses contained in flu vacines are either are dead (inactivated) or weakened (attenuated) and therefore cannot cause sickness. The flu vaccine can cause some side effects, which are usually mild. There are, however, several reasons why a person might get flu-like symptoms after getting a flu vaccine:

  • Exposure to a flu virus shortly before getting the flu vaccine or during the two-week period after vaccination when the body is developing antibodies to protect itself from the flu
  • Illness from non-flu viruses also circulating during flu season
  • Exposure to a flu virus that is not included in this year’s flu vaccine
  • Flu vaccine was less effective because they have weakened immune systems
  • The flu vaccine is not 100% effective so some people will get the flu despite being vaccinated

5. You can do other things to help protect yourself from the flu.

In addition to getting a flu vaccine, wash your hands frequently with soap and water (watch the CDC-TV video on hand washing), or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and take other everyday preventive actions against germs that cause illnesses.

6. Not all illness is the flu.

The flu is not the only virus that makes people sick during flu season. Regular cold viruses and stomach viruses (e.g., norovirus) also circulate. It can be hard to tell the difference between the flu and a cold, but cold symptoms usually include a stuffy and/or runny nose, sore throat, and sneezing. Flu symptoms, on the other hand, usually involve fever (although not always), chills, headache, moderate-to-severe body aches, and tiredness. Flu symptoms can come on rapidly, sometimes in just a few hours.

7. If you do become sick with the flu, prescription medications can help.

Flu antiviral drugs (e.g., Tamiflu) are prescription medicines that can shorten the length of illness and lessen symptoms. Even more importantly, these medicines can reduce serious complications from flu, including hospitalization and death. Antiviral drugs work best when started as soon as possible after symptoms develop. This means people with flu-like symptoms – especially high-risk groups like seniors – should seek medical care ASAP.

8. Public health activities are critical to minimizing illness from the flu.

CDC, the World Health Organization, FDA, and many other international partners conduct global flu surveillance 24/7 and work together to select the viruses that the flu vaccine will protect against. This work helps keep people healthy from the flu and other diseases. At CDC, we continue to track and report on flu activity in the U.S. and work with health care providers to promote optimal care. We also encourage the public to “Take 3” – get the flu vaccine, take everyday preventive actions to stop the spread of germs, and take antiviral medicines if your doctor prescribes them.

For more on the flu, visit CDC’s Flu webpage.

Be sure to also check out the latest CDC Director’s Briefing video on flu.

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