Flu season is upon us, and unfortunately, according to experts, it's set to be a nasty one, thanks to a powerful flu strain and less effective than usual vaccines. The flu gets near-constant attention and coverage during the winter months, so by now you may be a little fatigued from hearing about it. However, even if you've already had your vaccine, there are things you should know about the flu to help keep yourself informed and protected during this flu season and the seasons to come.
The first thing to remember about the current flu season is that scientists think the vaccine "may only be about 30 percent effective against H3N2," as National Geographic reported. That's because while the strain was being incubated for mass vaccine production, it mutated, making it less capable of combating the H3N2 infecting our population. Normally, flu vaccines are about 60 percent effective, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told National Geographic.
Fauci explained that H3N2's mutation during its vaccine incubation isn't a surprise because "H3N2 is historically the bad actor among influenzas," and it is "associated with complications." To make matters worse, he added, H3N2 is a strain that many people haven't had a lot of exposure to, so this flu season is combining a less-effective vaccine with a general lack of protection against the most prevalent flu strain.
Even if the vaccine is less effective this year, you should still get your flu shot, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, and so should everyone over 6 months old who is able to. But you should know that when you get your flu shot, you're not immediately protected. The CDC reports that it takes about two weeks for your body to respond to the flu shot and build up the antibodies necessary to help protect you. After receiving the shot, you should keep practicing good flu prevention — for the first two weeks and, well, forever. According to the CDC, good flu prevention includes avoiding close contact with people who are sick, washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and disinfecting surfaces that may be contaminated. Also, you should avoid touching your face in general.
The fact that people are in close contact during the winter may actually be the reason we have a flu season at all, according to Popular Science. Winter brings more folks inside and seals us off together with windows closed against the cold, encouraging the breeding and transmission of viruses like the flu. Keeping in mind that we are all germ factories and disinfecting yourself and your surroundings accordingly is a good foundation for flu protection.
And you do need to think about protection with this year's strain. While you may think the yearly flu panic has no basis or that maybe you don't need to worry about the flu because it rarely turns out to be as bad as predicted, H3N2 really is that bad. This year's flu outbreak is "the most widespread the [CDC] has ever seen," PBS reported, and "it looks like a more severe season than others in recent memory."
When you're keeping an eye out for the flu in yourself or your family members, it's better to be overly cautious. You should be aware that while people usually associate getting the flu with having a fever, the CDC explicitly says that not everyone with the flu will develop a fever. Other symptoms to watch out for, the CDC says, include a cough, a sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue. If you're not sure whether you've got the flu or a bad cold, you should get yourself checked out by a health care professional.
If you've already got the flu or know someone who does, getting medication within the first two days of the virus will help shorten the duration of the illness, Dr. Amber Robins of Georgetown University told PBS. Medications like Tamiflu can also help drive down the severity of flu symptoms.
As the flu season continues, knowing these flu facts will help keep you as protected as possible against one of our most widespread and underestimated illnesses.