As you gather with friends and family this holiday season, beware of an unwanted guest set on spoiling the fun: seasonal flu.
The 2017 to 2018 flu season is off to a dangerous and early start. Flu activity has been reported in all 50 states, and rates of infection are more than double what they were at this time last year.
Even scarier, an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 people die nationwide as a result of flu each year. Here in Florida, flu complications have already claimed the life of one young child.
But take comfort: the flu vaccine drastically lowers your likelihood of catching the flu, and makes it much easier to endure if you do happen to catch it.
And it’s not too late.
“Everybody over age six months should get their flu shot every year, ideally in the fall,” says Dr. Timothy Hendrix, medical director of AdventHealth, formerly Florida Hospital, Centra Care. “If you haven’t gotten your flu shot, get it now. As the season ramps up, you need to be protected.”
Flu vaccines, which change each year to cover the main circulating strains, are generally about 50 to 60 percent effective. “To some people, this may sound like a coin toss, but in reality, that is a very effective vaccine,” says Dr. Hendrix.
This year’s most prominent strain is H3N2, which wreaked havoc in Australia during its just-finished flu season. Changes in the virus may have lowered the vaccine’s effectiveness against this specific strain, but that shouldn’t stop you from getting the shot.
“I like to quote Dr. Vincent Hsu, our infectious disease specialist here at AdventHealth,” says Dr. Hendrix. “He says getting a flu shot is like wearing a seatbelt. It won’t prevent all episodes of influenza, but it will reduce the severity, and the chance of complications and death.”
The hallmark of influenza – which is spread through coughing, sneezing and other human contact – is the sudden onset of high fever, along with a cough, chills, body aches and, in Dr. Hendrix’s words, “overwhelming misery” that sets it apart from the common cold and other viruses.
“You wake up in the morning and feel perfectly fine, and by the end of the day you’re spiking a fever and feel like you got hit by a truck.”
In some situations flu can worsen into pneumonia, and, rarely, lead to death. A few groups are more vulnerable to flu complications, especially adults over 65, very young children, pregnant women and people with underlying illnesses. But there are exceptions – like the young mom in Arizona who died of flu complications just two days after her first symptoms.
“It’s rare, but there are those cases where a child or an adult will die, even though they were healthy and had no reason to have complications,” says Dr. Hendrix. “Flu is a serious infection, and you can reduce those risks by getting the vaccine.”
And the benefit of the vaccine is twofold: not only will you lower your own chances of getting sick, you’ll reduce the risk of passing the virus onto others – which may be the best gift of all.
“The more people who are vaccinated, the more protected our public will be – at work, in your family and in our community,” says Dr. Hendrix.
While it’s best to get vaccinated before flu season starts, a flu shot now is better late than never. Vaccines are still available at multiple AdventHealth Centra Care locations. Find the most convenient Centra Care location for you.