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This year’s flu has been front page news since December, and with good reason. It started early, hit hard, and has only just now begun showing signs of slowing down.
As Anne Schuchat, M.D., acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), put it on Thursday: “This flu season continues to be extremely challenging and intense, with very high levels of office visits for flu and hospitalization rates.”
It has also affected large swaths of the country at the same time, which is not the norm, says Schuchat. This year, “It seemed to hit everywhere in the United States all at once,” she says.
The news has also been full of upsetting stories about children and otherwise healthy adults dying from this common bug.
And amidst all this flu activity have been reports that the flu shot isn’t very effective, can be hard to find, and that antiviral drugs like Tamiflu are pricey and in short supply. To check the validity of those concerns, Consumer Reports called pharmacies around the country—with mostly reassuring results (see the last question below for details).
Still, the explosion of news about flu is confusing and concerning, so we spoke to several experts and dug into the research to find out more about what you really need to know. Here, answers to six key questions about this flu season and how to protect yourself and your family.
Is This Year's Flu Really So Much Worse?
Compared with other recent flu seasons, this year’s is more severe in a number of ways.
Many more people than usual are feeling sick enough to head to a doctor or the emergency room, and more need to be hospitalized.
In fact, hospitalizations from flu-related illness have reached their highest levels since 2010.
The percentage of deaths in the U.S. due to flu or pneumonia for the week ending January 27 was 9.8, a larger number than we’ve seen in many flu seasons.
Part of the reason for the severity: the strain of flu that’s predominated so far this season, H3N2, is associated with more severe symptoms, more hospitalizations, and more flu-related deaths than other strains. Also, the flu shot tends to not protect as well against this strain as it does against others.
But here’s a bright spot: While flu activity is likely to stay high across the U.S. for at least several more weeks, the proportion of flu samples testing positive for H3N2 are beginning to fall in favor of other strains less likely to cause serious illness.
According to CDC's most recent weekly data, the percentage of doctor and emergency room visits for flu-like illnesses (at about 7.5 percent) this week didn't increase, for the first time in about two months.
Taking basic precautions, such as getting vaccinated and practicing good hygiene, can make a big difference, says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser.
Also, although the flu can make you feel rotten, the vast majority of people recover within a week or two.
Are More Healthy People Dying From Flu?
When otherwise healthy people die from the flu—which, unfortunately, happens every year—these deaths often become news. But “they’re not necessarily representative of what’s going on,” says Amesh Adalja, M.D., infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
In truth, most of the people who die from the flu each year—and this year looks to be the same—were at high risk for complications such as pneumonia or sepsis before they caught the virus. This includes those who are age 65 or older, children younger than 5, pregnant women, and people with preexisting health conditions such as lung or heart disease.
But how does anyone who is generally healthy die from such a common illness? In most instances it happens when the flu progresses to viral or bacterial pneumonia. Both hinder the lungs’ ability to function. Many people will recover from pneumonia just fine, but sometimes, the infections cannot be cleared up. (See our report on flu-related pneumonia.)
Why Get the Flu Shot If It's Not Effective?
It's true that the current flu shot isn’t as protective as health officials would like. According to a new estimate by the CDC, this year’s vaccine is 36 percent effective against flu overall, and 25 percent effective against H3N2. (On the positive side, the CDC data show that the vaccine seems to be 59 percent effective for children ages 6 months to 8 years against all strains combined.)
But if you haven’t yet been vaccinated, there are still good reasons to get the shot now, say Lipman and other health experts.
The numbers may seem low for adults, says Aaron Glatt, M.D., chairman of medicine at South Nassau Communities Hospital in New York and a spokesperson for the Infectious Disease Society of America, but it still means that about one in three people exposed to the flu won’t get sick enough to need a doctor.
“If I could prevent only 25 percent of the car accidents in the country, would anybody be upset about that?” says Glatt.
Plus, notes Adalja, if you do get the flu, being vaccinated lowers the chance that you’ll be hospitalized or die from the illness.
And the new CDC data found that the vaccine offers more protection from the strains that are starting to emerge now: It’s 67 percent effective against H1N1 and 42 percent against flu type B.
Are Kids in More Danger From This Flu?
During this flu season, as in most years, the overwhelming majority of children will get over the flu in a week or two with rest, fluids, and fever-reducing meds like acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, and generic), or naproxen (Aleve and generic).
But sadly, some children die every year from flu. So far this flu season, 84 deaths have been reported—much more than the 29 and 13 deaths reported by this point in the last two years, respectively. But it's fewer than the 86 reported at this time in 2015—another severe season.
Children under age 5 (and especially under age 2) have less developed immune systems, which makes them more susceptible to becoming severely ill from the flu. The same is true of children of any age who had health problems such as asthma before catching the flu. About half of the youngsters who have died this year had an underlying medical condition, and three-quarters were not vaccinated, according to the CDC.
So the most important thing a parent can do is make sure their kids are vaccinated. And if your child is younger than 5 or has an another health condition, call your doctor as soon as you suspect flu. He or she may benefit from treatment with antivirals like oseltamivir (Tamiflu and generic), which may help shorten the length or severity of illness.
Finally, get your child to the doctor or ER right away if he or she exhibits these symptoms: difficulty breathing and flu symptoms that start to improve but then suddenly worsen, with new fever or cough. (For more on emergency signs of flu in children, see our report here.)
Should You Take Tamiflu If You Get the Flu?
If you’re between ages 5 and 65 and are otherwise healthy, you probably don’t need an antiviral for a mild case of flu, Glatt says. The potential benefits—shortening the illness by a day or so and some easing of symptoms—may not outweigh potential side effects such as headache, nausea, and vomiting. (Rare side effects in children may include delirium or hallucinations.)
“Although (antivirals) are proven to have benefits in reducing the duration and severity, they’re quite modest,” says Michael Hochman, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Gehr Family Center for Health Systems Science at the Keck School of Medicine at USC in Los Angeles.
However, if you (or someone you care for) is in a high-risk group, ask your doctor for an antiviral right away if you suspect flu. Your doctor may also prescribe an antiviral if he or she thinks your symptoms seem especially severe. (Antivirals are most effective if treatment is begun within 48 hours of the time symptoms start.)
Still, Hochman says, don’t push for Tamiflu if you really don’t need it: “More important than even getting Tamiflu is making sure you get fluids and stay rested.”
Can You Still Find Tamiflu and the Flu Shot?
In most places, yes. The CDC has reported spot shortages of Tamiflu at some locations, but says it’s still widely available. And when Consumer Report’s secret shoppers called 28 pharmacies across the country—including large metropolitan areas and small cities—we found only two that had run out of branded and generic Tamiflu. If you experience a shortage at your usual pharmacy, call around to other stores.
And while prices for Tamiflu (for people without insurance) varied from a high of $166 to a low of $73, we also found that in most places you can get a coupon from GoodRx.com that brings the price down to about $50.
The CDC says the flu shot should also be widely available, although some doctor’s offices and pharmacies may be running low. You can use the CDC’s Vaccine Finder tool to see which pharmacies in your area have vaccine in stock. Confirm that they have supplies by phone before you go. Or simply call your doctor's office to see if they have the shot.
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