Flu season is in full, miserable swing, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a warning that this year's strain is especially dangerous. Due to the nature of this year's strain, the flu shot is less effective than usual — but the vaccine is still beneficial because it can potentially make your symptoms less severe if you do come down with the flu.
The reason 2018 flu season is worse than usual is because the virus's dominant strain, H3N2, has been described by experts as one that causes severe symptoms and can be deadly — particularly for the youngest and oldest patients affected.
"This season, influenza illness has caused about three times more hospitalizations and pediatric deaths compared to same time last year," Teena Chopra MD, MPH, Corporate Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Hospital Epidemiology at Detroit Medical Center, told POPSUGAR.
Here's what you should know about the 2018 flu's symptoms, prevention measures, and what to do if you are infected.
According to Chopra, this year's most prominent symptoms are: fever or chills, coughing, sore throat, runny nose, headaches, muscle and body aches, fatigue, and vomiting (especially in children). These are fairly typical for any flu season, but the symptoms have been more severe for many patients this year.
Bernard Camins, MD, associate professor at the University of Alabama — Birmingham's Division of Infectious Diseases, said that people frequently mistake flu symptoms with those of the common cold. "Flu symptoms include fever or chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue," Camins told POPSUGAR. "The common cold very rarely gives you fever or chills, or muscle or body aches."
Both Chopra and Camins emphasized the importance of getting the flu shot — and, no, it's not too late to get the shot.
"If you have not gotten your flu shot, you are still encouraged to do so — but note that it typically takes two weeks to take effect," Camins told POPSUGAR. "The current flu vaccine has three to four strains of influenza that it works against, so even if it is not very effective against the current circulating strain, it may be very effective against the three other strains."
Practicing good hygiene is more important than ever during flu season. "Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand antibacterial rub," Chopra advised. "Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough and sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after use."
Ideally, we should avoid close contact with any person who has the flu — but that's not always easy if a family member or roommate is infected. "If it's a spouse, child, or roommate who you live with, do your best to use separate bathrooms and stay in separate rooms if possible, and be sure to disinfect surfaces often," Camins said. When it comes to the workplace, he suggested postponing face-to-face meetings in favor of teleconferences.
What to Do If You Catch the Flu
Dr. Helen Ewing, Dean of Nursing at Carrington College, told POPSUGAR that treatment for the flu should include getting plenty of rest, drinking fluids to stay hydrated, and taking over-the-counter medications to manage the symptoms.
"Some people find the use of steam helps relieve the coughing and respiratory congestion through adding a teaspoon of an over-the-counter menthol rub to boiling water and breathing in the steam for several minutes," Ewing added.
She said that because your body will typically fight off the virus on its own, it's not usually necessary to seek medical attention — but there are certainly exceptions, and it's crucial to know when it's time to contact your doctor.
"It is important to seek medical attention if you cannot drink enough fluids and become dehydrated, or if the flu symptoms are not going away and are worsening as this may indicate flu complications," Ewing explained. "Pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, is one of the most serious complications of the flu. Untreated, it can be life-threatening. Other possible complications are bronchitis, an infection of the airways, and sinusitis, an infection of the sinuses."
Chopra and Camins also said it's not usually necessary to seek medical attention — but Chopra added the caveat that "high-risk" individuals should get a prescription for antiviral medication. People in the high-risk category include children under 5 years of age, adults 65 years or older, pregnant women, residents of nursing homes, American Indians, and Alaskan Natives.
Camins noted that it's important to speak with a doctor before leaving your home. "If any of your symptoms are abnormally severe, call your healthcare provider to get medical advice on what to do before leaving your home. They may recommend for you to visit your local hospital, or may suggest staying home. It's important to defer to their professional opinion," he said, adding that securing a prescription for an antiviral can be done over the phone rather than by visiting a crowded facility.
When you're infected, Camins said it's essential to practice "respiratory etiquette." This includes avoiding crowds, washing your hands frequently, and staying home from work or school for at least five to seven days.