How bad will flu season be this year?
Well, it’ll be bad for you, if you catch it. So, get a flu shot, health officials say.
Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they can’t accurately predict the number of people who will get the flu in a given season, but research shows that vaccinations reduce the risk of influenza by 40 to 60 percent. They recommend flu shots for everyone over 6 months old.
In the United States, flu season runs through fall and winter and can hit its peak anytime from November to March.
Infectious disease experts monitor influenza outbreaks in the southern hemisphere, where flu season begins earlier. In Australia, the cases of flu have doubled this year.
“So, we're thinking that this year the strain of influenza may be a little bit more severe than in the last couple of years,’’ said Dr. Denise Hooks-Anderson, an assistant professor of family medicine at Saint Louis University. “That is why it's so important that we get as many people immunized as possible.’’
It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body to protect against flu.
Hooks-Anderson advises her patients to get flu shots in October — and definitely by early December when viruses can be spread at holiday gatherings. But even if you don’t make that deadline, it’s not too late to get the shot.
“A serious influenza infection could place a person in the ICU. So it's important that everyone gets a flu shot,’’ she said.
Locally, the numbers of flu cases are beginning to edge upward.
The St. Louis County Department of Health has reported 87 confirmed cases of flu since Oct. 1. Twenty-five of those cases were reported during the week of Nov. 6–12.
The city of St. Louis has confirmed seven cases since Oct. 1.
Influenza is particularly dangerous for young children, pregnant women and elderly people. Last flu season, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services reported 71,469 confirmed cases of flu in the state; 2,093 people died of pneumonia and influenza.
“The symptoms of influenza can be high fevers, really severe muscle aches, coughing, diarrhea, vomiting,’’ Hooks-Anderson said. “We describe it in medical school, as you feel like a Mack truck has hit you — quite different than just a common cold. These people are pretty sick.’’
Patients frequently ask her whether the flu shot can give them the flu.
“I wish I could scream at the top of my lungs that the influenza vaccine does not cause influenza,’’ she said. “Sometimes, you may get a little runny nose. You may feel a little achy. But we are not injecting you with the live influenza virus.’’
Her advice, in a nutshell:
- Get a flu shot.
- Wash your hands frequently and use hand sanitizers.
“If you have cold-like symptoms — a runny nose or a cough — sneeze and cough into a tissue or into the crook of your arm and immediately either wash your hands with soap and water or use some form of a hand sanitizer,’’ she said.
- If you get the flu, stay home from work or school. Influenza is contagious, even before people begin having symptoms and up to a week after they become sick.
- See your doctor as soon as you think you might have the flu.
“The medications that we use to treat influenza work best within the first 48 hours,’’ she said. “So it's really important to get in during that time frame because the medications will help lessen the severity of the illness and hopefully shorten it by a few days.’’
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard