If you've been slammed by the flu this season and think you can't get it again for a year or so, think again. Flu season typically runs from October through April or May, and during that time, you're vulnerable to falling ill more than once.
"While unlikely, people can get the flu twice in a single flu season," says Dr. David Shih, executive vice president of strategy on health and innovation for CityMD, a network of urgent care centers in New York, New Jersey and Washington state. "There are different [flu] strains in the environment. It is possible that a person can be infected by one strain and make a full recovery, then catch a different strain within the flu season. The odds of the same person catching the same strain twice are extremely rare, as your body will develop antibodies to the first flu virus you caught; however, you can catch mutated versions of the various flu strains."
This flu season has been particularly bad, according to officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Feb. 17, more than 21,200 people have been admitted to hospitals with confirmed cases of influenza, and at least 97 children have died, according to the CDC. That number will likely rise as more children get sick, are hospitalized and die, says Kristin Nordlund, a CDC spokeswoman. "This progression takes time, which is why we expect the number of deaths to increase," she says. This flu season's death and hospitalization rates are on track to match or exceed those of the severe 2014-15 flu season; that year, 56,000 people died from the flu and 710,000 patients were hospitalized. In all, 16 million people in the U.S. sought treatment from a hospital or a clinician that season.
There are four types of influenza viruses: A, B, C and D. The H3N2 virus, a su-type of the A flu virus, is the dominant strain infecting people in the U.S. this season. "Certain strains of influenza tend to cause more severe disease, and H3N2 is one of those strains," says Dr. Tina Q. Tan, an attending physician with the division of infectious diseases at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. "It's also the most common strain that's circulating in the community and is commonly associated with complications. This year's influenza vaccine isn't as effective against this strain because the virus mutated while the vaccine was being manufactured."
The flu shot is only 36 percent effective against the A and B strains this year -- one reason why we're experiencing one of the worst flu seasons in years, according to the CDC. Flu symptoms vary by strain but include dry cough, sore throat, fever and muscle pain. Children, particularly those younger than 5, may also develop gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, as well as earaches. The flu can lead to complications such as pneumonia, sinus infections and, in extreme cases, sepsis, an infection that can be fatal.
"Thankfully, there aren't thousands or even hundreds of strains going around any given winter, but rather a few strains that predominate and are responsible for most of the cases of flu each year," says Dr. Brett Cannon, vice president and chief of emergency medicine at WellStar Health System in Marietta, Georgia.
Here are six strategies to avoid coming down with the flu more than once per influenza season:
Avoid close contact with people who are sick with the flu. It's difficult to completely avert contact with people who are ill with the flu, but it's a good idea to limit your exposure to them as much as possible, says Erica Melling, a physician assistant at ChoiceOne Urgent Care - Gwinnett Medical Center in the Atlanta area. For example, if you live in a household in which someone's sick, use a paper mask that covers your mouth when you're around them. If the weather is mild enough, open a window -- fresh air diminishes the concentration of the virus in the air, Melling says.
Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs. Use disinfectant wipes or a cleaning agent and sponge to wipe down places that could be repositories for germs, including dining room tables, counter tops, bathroom sinks, toilet handles and doorknobs, Melling advises. "Wipe off anything that someone who is sick would routinely touch," she says. Doing so lessens the chances the virus will spread.
[See: How to Disinfect Germ Hotspots.]
If you haven't already gotten a flu shot, get one. It's never too late in the flu season to get a vaccination, Tan says. The vaccine reduces the severity, duration and morbidity of the flu -- and it can save you a lot of money. "If you think about it, a flu shot can cost about $25," Tan says. "A stay in the hospital can cost thousands of dollars a day." Many primary care physicians offer the vaccine at cost, and pharmacies such as Rite Aid, CVS and Walgreens often provide flu shots at no charge if you have health insurance. Without health insurance, prices for a flu shot range from $15 to $40. Prices can be higher for older people; for instance, Walgreens charges $59.99 for a high-dose flu shot for people age 65 and older, according to the chain's website. A high-dose flu shot "is designed specifically for people 65 and older and contains four times the amount of antigen as the regular flu shot. It is associated with a stronger immune response following vaccination," the CDC reports.
Keep your hands clean. Washing your hands regularly and thoroughly is one of the most important things you can do to keep from getting and spreading the flu, says Dr. Nilesh J. Patel, a pediatrician and assistant area medical director at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center. "Using warm water and regular soap is as effective as using antibacterial soap," Patel advises. "When you're washing your hands make sure you lather them thoroughly and scrub them for 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand gel when you can't wash your hands."
Avoid touching your face. "Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth," Patel says. "Flu germs can live for two to eight hours on hard surfaces. That's why it's so easy to pick up flu germs without knowing it. You can get infected if you touch an infected doorknob or light switch and then rub your eyes or bite your nails." Learning to keep your hands away from your face can be a challenge, especially for children. "Remind them often" he says, "and be mindful of it for yourself," he advises.
Eat right and exercise. Eating a healthy diet can help you ward off getting the flu a second time, says Ken Majkowski, chief pharmacy officer at FamilyWize, a national organization that advocates and negotiates for discounts on prescription drugs for community groups and nonprofits. "It's extremely important to consume healthy and nutritious foods, whether you are already sick or not," he says. "Consuming certain foods, like those containing high amounts of sugar, are shown to impact the immune system just hours after ingestion." Exercise is also beneficial for your immune system and helps lower stress. High stress levels can compromise your body's ability to ward off infection.
Ruben Castaneda is a Health & Wellness reporter at U.S. News. He previously covered the crime beat in Washington, D.C. and state and federal courts in suburban Maryland, and he's the author of the book "S Street Rising: Crack, Murder and Redemption in D.C." You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him at LinkedIn or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.