Although late February and March typically mean the last leg of flu season, this year, influenza (flu) shows few signs of slowing down. Cindy Weston, DNP, RN, FNP-BC, an assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing, stresses the importance of getting vaccinated—yes, even now—and preventative hygiene to help protect against this dangerous virus.
Flu season until now
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), positive influenza identifications have been elevated across the United States, with 27 states experiencing high influenza-like illness (ILI) activity. The proportion of people seeing their health care provider for ILI remain above the national baseline, and five additional flu-associated pediatric deaths have been reported—with 34 total for the year.
Because the children and elderly remain at higher risks for complications due to influenza, it is extremely important to get your flu shot if you have not yet, for the benefit of the vulnerable around you, even if you don’t think you need one for your own sake. “Children under the age of 6 months rely on the population to get their vaccine to be at the lowest risk for the illness,” Weston said.
Flu shots: What else to know?
While the flu shot does not fully prevent you from getting the flu, it decreases the chances of the prominent strains. It may seem like a hassle every year to go to your physician’s office or pharmacy to get you and your family vaccinated, but Weston said it’s very necessary, and she stressed that getting vaccinated won’t give you the flu.
“The flu strain mutates every year,” Weston said. “The flu shot you get this year is different from the one you got last year because it is made specifically for the predominant strains of the virus.”
The predominant virus strain this year is influenza A (H3N2) strain, though the CDC also identified influenza A (H1N1)pdm09 and influenza B viruses. The overall protection of this year’s flu shot is about 48 percent. During the 2015–16 season, vaccine effectiveness was 47 percent, about the same as this season. Although that may seem low, that’s better than some years: During the 2014–15 season, effectiveness was just 19 percent, according to the CDC.
Influenza in Texas
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), influenza activity has decreased slightly from its high a few days ago, but it’s too soon to tell if flu activity has peaked for the season. Outbreaks have been common thus far, with at least nine schools across Texas having closed for at least a day due to concerns about flu outbreaks.
The beginning of February showed the greatest number of outbreaks, with just under 35 percent of tests positive for influenza. The number has since dropped to under 25 percent. However, despite this drop, there are still concerns about outbreaks—especially since there can be an uptick of influenza activity during Spring Break because of amount of traveling. If you plan on going to crowded beaches or family gatherings, get your flu shot sooner rather than later.
“It takes two weeks after the immunization to develop appropriate antibodies in the body,” Weston said. “The coverage is strongest for about six months, and it will help keep you and your community safer.”
How else can I avoid the flu?
In addition to the vaccination, simple hygienic practices at home or in public can help reduce the spread of illnesses in your home or community.
“It is very important to practice good hygiene,” Weston said. “Washing your hands properly for at least twenty seconds, covering your cough or sneeze, avoiding contact between your hands and your face or eyes, and wiping down surfaces with disinfectant are all ways to help stop the spread of the flu or other illnesses.”
Be on the lookout for these signs and symptoms of the flu:
- sudden onset of high fever—over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit
- body aches
- sore throat
- cough and/or congestion
- runny nose
If you or someone you know shows symptoms of the flu, there is a 48-hour window to begin anti-viral therapy, which can lessen the severity and duration of the flu. These medications are only available by prescription, so it’s important to get to your health care provider for evaluation as soon as possible after symptoms develop.
Source: TAMU Health Science Center