WASHINGTON- January 16, 2014—This year’s flu is on-track to be one of the worst in recent history.
This flu, called A-(H3N2), arrived earlier this year than any year over the past decade and has already reached pandemic levels, with active cases in 47 states.
The peak of the disease generally comes in February, so the worst is yet to come for most states.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not track adult deaths from influenza (flu), it estimates about 36,000 people die from the disease annually. The early arrival and strength of A-(H3N2) suggests that number may be even higher this year.
What makes this flu deadlier than most influenza is that it is disproportionately and more severely affecting the elderly over age 65; children under age two; those with underlying diseases that compromise the immune system such as pneumonia, diabetes and HIV; and those suffering from any affliction that is impacted by a bacterial infection that can follow a flu, particularly a prolonged flu like A-(H3N2).
The real trouble lies in the bacterial infections that may arise as complications of the flu. In most cases, one recovers from the flu in about five to seven days. However, after feeling better many A-(H3N2) flu sufferers experience a relapse, which may actually be a post-flu bacterial infection. This kind of infection may present symptoms such as difficulty breathing, chest pain, inability to retain fluids due to nausea and vomiting, and worsening fever or cough. These symptoms may appear after an apparent recovery from the initial attack of influenza.
Recognizing this cycle and seeking treatment as quickly as possible is critical, as flu complications are responsible for over 200,000 hospitalizations annually, according to the CDC.
Many people avoid vaccination, fearing that they will acquire the flu after being vaccinated. However, this is not possible because the influenza vaccine contains inactivated (dead) flu germs that cannot cause illness. While the body will naturally react to an injection of dead flu germs, causing a vaccine recipient to feel under the weather for a couple days, this feeling is not the flu.
Avoiding the flu in a state with a high flu rate is difficult, especially for those who are not vaccinated. A vaccine, however, does not guarantee immunity from the flu, since an inoculation is comprised of three separate dead flu germ types that are anticipated to be the most active for a particular season. However, predictions may not always be accurate.
The flu vaccine works on about 60 percent of those who receive it, with the very young, elderly and those with underlying medical conditions benefitting most from vaccination.
The best way to prevent the flu is proper hand washing. Health experts recommend washing hands for at least 20 seconds several times a day, carrying sanitizing hand wipes and remembering to wipe every square inch of hand and wrist surface. It is also advisable to avoid crowds and enclosed areas during flu season.
The germs from a flu victim can travel airborne up to six feet and can reside on almost any surface for several days, essentially lying in wait for someone to touch the infected surface and proceed to touch their face or an open wound.
If you decide on flu vaccination, make sure to get vaccinated at least two weeks prior to the beginning of flu season, because it takes about that long for the vaccination to work. Getting vaccinated too late is often the reason we hear “I got the vaccination but got the flu anyway”.
If diagnosed with the flu, do not ask your doctor for an anti-biotic unless secondary bacterial symptoms appear, as an anti-biotic will not work on a virus like the flu.
Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based psychotherapist and writer.