Here's why this flu season is shaping up to be one of the worst in years

This year’s flu season is shaping up to be one of the worst the U.S. has seen in years. So far, at least 6.4 million Americans have been struck with the flu and 2,900 people have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The 2019-2020 flu season has been particularly harmful to children. In mid-December, the CDC reported that six children had died from the flu. But the latest CDC statistics show that number has climbed to 27 children.

“Children are particularly vulnerable because their immune systems are not fully developed,” Randell Wexler, MD, a family medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “In addition, children with asthma — as well as other chronic diseases — are more susceptible, and they do not respond to a viral insult the same way adults do. Children under the age of five in general, and those less than one year of age in particular, are most at risk.”

With flu season in full swing, it’s not surprising that flu activity is “high” all across the nation, according to the CDC. But some experts are comparing this year’s flu season to the 2017-2018 season, which was “one of the worst,” according to Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, resulting in more than 61,000 deaths.

The 2019-2020 flu season may end up being one of the worst the U.S. has seen in years. (Photo: Getty Images)
The 2019-2020 flu season may end up being one of the worst the U.S. has seen in years. (Photo: Getty Images)

A CDC graph that compares the number of reported flu cases in the current 2019-2020 season with previous flu seasons shows that the numbers are already higher than in several previous years. "Hopefully this turns around and comes down, but if it continues on the trajectory it's on, it's not going to be good," Fauci told CNN.

Why are some years worse than others?

“Each year there are different strains of flu, and they can vary in virulence,” Wexler tells Yahoo Lifestyle, which is why people need to get a flu vaccine every year. “In addition, there is also the factor as to how well the vaccine matches up with the strains that predominate. It is not exact.”

This season, influenza B/Victoria viruses are “predominant nationally,” which the CDC says is “unusual for this time of year.” The next most common circulating strains are influenza A(H1N1)pdm09 viruses. However, even in years when the current vaccine and flu viruses don’t perfectly match up, flu vaccines can still offer some protection. According to the CDC: “It’s important to remember that flu vaccine protects against three or four different flu viruses and multiple viruses usually circulate during any one season. Even if the effectiveness of the vaccine is reduced against one virus it can still be effective at preventing flu illness caused by the other circulating viruses.”

So what should you do if you get the flu? Experts suggest seeing your doctor and, for those with severe symptoms, getting treatment such as antiviral medications (Tamiflu, Relenza) right away. “Antivirals will shorten the infection and prevent superinfection,” Peter Gulick, an internal medicine doctor at Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Adds Wexler: “If one gets the flu there is treatment, but it should begin within 48 hours of symptom onset.”

Drinking fluids to stay hydrated and getting rest is also key, notes Gulick. But, says Wexler, “If people get short of breath, begin to wheeze uncontrollably, get dehydrated, have uncontrollable nausea and vomiting, or become confused, they should seek immediate care.”

It’s especially important to check with your child’s pediatrician when young kids come down with the flu. “Children usually start clearing by five days,” says Gulick. “But if they do not — or they get sicker — they should go to the doctor immediately since they could get a superinfection, such as pneumonia with staphylococcus or pneumococcus bacteria.”

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