Why is this flu season so bad?

Vaccinations and syringe
Vaccinations and syringe

Strategies for Well-Being

The flu is everywhere in the United States right now … and it won’t be over any time soon.

This year’s flu season is worse than last year’s. Blame it on the dominant flu strain, H3N2, which causes more fatalities than H1N1 and other flu viruses.

It’s been a brutal flu season so far. People are getting sick earlier and the symptoms are lasting longer. The 2018 flu season is bad for a lot of reasons. Both influenza A and B strains are circulating at the same time, when one usually dominates early in the season with the other coming on late.

Influenza researchers don’t know exactly why H3N2 is more virulent than other flu strains. One possible reason is that H3N2 mutates faster than other flu viruses.

This year’s deadly flu season is sending more baby boomers than young people to the hospital, according to health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People 65 and older have the highest hospitalization rates so far, followed by baby boomers – 50 to 64. Young people typically have the second highest number of visits for flu, but this season boomers have higher rates than their grandchildren.

The nation is experiencing one of the worst flu seasons in recent years, affecting everyone from school-aged children to frail seniors, healthy people and those struggling with ongoing health issues.

And it’s breaking unwelcome records.

The typical flu lasts for three to seven days and so an average adult is sick three to seven days and then they get better. There are some people who get sick and their cough will linger. Their respiratory symptoms get better, fever, body aches get better, but their cough will stick around for two weeks and that’s actually pretty normal.

Flu usually hits the very young and the very old the hardest. Depending on the season, it kills anywhere between 4,000 and 50,000 people a year in the United States. Because each flu case is not counted, public health experts have to estimate flu’s toll, and don’t get a good picture until the end of the season.

You should be more concerned and head for the doctor if you experience rebound flu.

Rebound flu is concerning because the flu can actually cause things like bacterial pneumonia or bacterial sinus infection. It’s very common for a secondary bacterial infection to set in after a patient has battled back to health from the flu, which is always viral. It’s also possible to come down with a different strain of the flu. Those of you who thought you had “paid your dues” with one or two weeks in bed battling this bug, please keep the rebound threat in mind and be watchful.

The main flu bug this season tends to cause more deaths and hospitalizations and vaccines tend not to work as well against this type. On average, past flu vaccines have been about 42 percent effective, though that number can range anywhere from 10 to 60 percent in a given year. But experts have said that even if the effectiveness of this year’s vaccine is particularly low, it’s still worthwhile to get a flu shot. Early estimates suggest the flu shot only worked about a third of the time this year. This year’s flu vaccines reduce the chance of getting the flu by about one-third but are just 25 percent effective against the nasty strain that’s causing the most misery.

One other reason the flu vaccine tends to underperform in H3N2 years has to do with … eggs. To produce the vaccines, manufacturers need to grow a lot of flu virus – and they discovered long ago that flu virus grows extremely effectively in eggs. So viruses are injected into fertilized hen’s eggs, incubated for several days while they replicate, then harvested from the eggs, killed (or inactivated), and purified to go into vaccines. In other words, while growing the flu virus for vaccines, H3N2 mutates to adapt to the eggs, which seems to result in a vaccine mismatch.

Even 10 percent effective is better than nothing, and a lot of it has to do with herd immunity – the more people are protected from it, the more other people will also be protected. Experts have said that if you do get the flu, it will likely be less severe if you have gotten a flu shot.

Is it too late to get a flu shot?

No. Getting the vaccine now will take you through the flu season’s second peak in early spring. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to become effective. Flu season typically ends in April or early May.

We probably have a few more weeks of flu season left, but exactly how many; no one knows for sure.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!


This column is for informational purposes only. If you have a medical condition or concern, please seek professional care from your doctor or other health professional. Glenn Ellis is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist and is available through http://www.glennellis.com.


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