From Prevention to Treatment: Everything You Need to Know About this Year's Flu

Is this year going to be worse than ever? Should you vaccinate soon or wait? We're answering all your questions

Pediatrician checking glands of boy in examination room
Photo: Getty

The 2017 – 2018 flu season was the deadliest in years, resulting in a record-breaking number of hospitalizations and several deaths. And with flu season right around the corner, it’s crucial to take early action and be armed with information and preventative measures in order to protect yourself and those around you from the flu.

Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that it is “important to convey the full burden of seasonal flu to the public.”

“Seasonal flu is a serious disease that causes illness, hospitalizations, and deaths every year in the United States,” according to the site. The first pediatric death of an unvaccinated child in the 2018-2019 flu season has already been reported.

Here’s everything you need to know about the flu to prepare yourself for the 2018-2019 flu season, and to handle it once it hits.

What are the most common flu symptoms?

According to the CDC, the symptoms are: fever, cough, sore throat, muscle ache, headache, runny or stuffy nose, chills, severe lethargy and sometimes diarrhea or vomiting. The site also notes that “not everyone with flu will have a fever.”

What is the difference between cold and flu?

The only way to confirm if you have the flu is to get tested, but there are subtle distinctions that can help you distinguish between influenza and colds.

While the two are both viral illnesses with overlapping symptoms that tend to occur in the same seasons, the notable difference is how quickly the symptoms come on. “A cold typically gradually progresses symptom by symptom over [several] days,” says Keri Peterson, MD, an internist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “With the flu, the constellation of symptoms… comes on in 24 to 48 hours.” Dr. Peterson adds that chest pain and body aches can be symptoms of the flu, but are not typical of colds.

If you start to feel the onset of flu-like symptoms and are unsure if it’s just a cold or something more severe, it’s always best to check in with your doctor if you’re concerned.

Why should you get a flu shot? Does it work?

The flu shot contains an inactive dose of the influenza virus, which prompts the immune system to create antibodies to fight off the potentially deadly viral infection. While it does not guarantee that a person will not get the flu, it does greatly reduce both the risk of contracting it and the symptoms if you do get it. As the flu virus is constantly changing, the vaccine is tweaked annually in an attempt to target what are projected to be the most prevalent strains of the disease. During the 2017 to 2018 flu season, the vaccine was estimated to be 40 percent effective against influenza A and B viruses, and ranged from 25 to 65 percent effective against the various strains according to the CDC.

Beyond lowering your own risk, getting vaccinated also protects those around you who may be more at risk, such as children or grandparents. Even if the shot does not ultimately prevent you from getting the flu, it does reduce your chances of spreading it to others and therefore helps to avoid sending the more susceptible to the hospital. The CDC estimated that in the 2016 to 2017 season alone, the vaccine prevented 5.3 million flu illnesses, 2.6 million medical visits and 85,000 hospitalizations related to influenza.

The CDC also announced that the nasal spray flu vaccine will again be available for certain individuals this year after a two-season hiatus. Most vaccines for the upcoming flu season will be “quadrivalent,” meaning they protect against four different virus strains.

Nurse gives flu shot vaccine to patient at pharmacy.

When should you get one? And where?

The CDC recommends getting the flu shot within the next two weeks — that is, by the end of October.

While the timing of flu season varies from year to year, it typically begins in the fall, peaks in December, January and February, and can last as late as May — and you want to be protected ahead of time. “We know that antibodies peak four to six weeks after getting a vaccine and then slowly go down over the next six months,” explains Ann Falsey, MD, professor of medicine in the infectious disease unit at the University of Rochester Medical Center. She recommends her patients get their flu shots in late September or early October so that the antibodies are in high gear by the winter frenzy. Plus, since the antibodies initially kick in about two weeks after you’re vaccinated, you’ll have a bit of protection at the onset of the season.

There are several options when seeking out a convenient place to get the flu shot. In addition to pharmacies and schools, you can also get the flu vaccine at your doctor’s office, urgent-care clinics, and many workplaces for free.

Can the flu vaccine cause the flu?

Dr. Denise Pate, Internal Medicine Doctor at Medical Offices of Manhattan, tells PEOPLE she’s encountered several patients who were wary of the shot due to long-circulated rumors that it causes illness.

“They think it’s gonna give them the flu, it’s a very common thing,” she says. “Because the virus is inactive, it absolutely cannot transmit the infection.”

Some may experience body aches, soreness around the injection site and “may feel a bit feverish” for up to a day after getting the vaccination, Pate says, but this is not to be confused with contracting the flu. “I think it’s important to recognize the side effects of getting the shot versus what the actual flu is,” she says.

“It is common that when you do get the flu shot, you’re taking in the inactive virus so you’re body is getting exposed to something. The response that you have is basically you may be slightly under the weather.”

What are the different types of flu?

Different flu strains circulate every year. The two virus types — influenza A and B — each have numerous subtypes, such as H3 or H1 viruses. Last flu season, the H3N2 subtype of influenza A was particularly prevalent, according to the CDC.

Pediatrician checking glands of boy in examination room

Who is most at risk for the flu?

While anyone can get the flu, young children, patients 65 or older, pregnant women and those with chronic health problems are most at risk of suffering more and worse complications from it if they do get sick. The CDC recommends that all individuals age 6 months and older who don’t have a specific reason not to get vaccinated — like a history of allergic reactions to the flu shot — do so.

How bad was the flu last year?

The 2017 to 2018 flu season was categorized by the CDC as a “high severity season” that began to increase in November, peaked in January and February, and remained elevated through the end of March. Flu-related hospitalizations were at a record high, which the CDC estimates at 710,000. While flu deaths in adults are not nationally notifiable, there were a total of 180 pediatric deaths reported to the CDC during last year’s flu season — 80 percent of which occurred in children who had not gotten a flu shot.

This first pediatric death of an unvaccinated child during the 2018 to 2019 flu season occurred in early October in Florida — something which health officials found unusual, as there have been no outbreaks yet and flu season has yet to peak.

However, CDC experts believe this season will be milder nationwide.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re seeing more encouraging signs than we were early last year,” Dr. Daniel Jernigan, a CDC flu expert, said in September.

How long does the flu last?

The flu usually lasts one to two weeks, although the worst of the symptoms will subside in the first few days. According to the CDC, people with flu are most contagious in the first three or four days after their illness begins. Those infected are able to transmit the virus to others up to one day before symptoms develop, and up to 5 to 7 days after.

RELATED VIDEO: Here’s What You Need to Know If You Get the Flu

What should you do if you get the flu?

If you’re sick with the flu, the CDC recommends staying home from school or work for at least 24 hours after your fever subsides. Most people are at peak contagiousness in the three or four days after becoming sick, according to the CDC, but you may be able to infect others from a day before to seven days after developing symptoms.

What’s the best flu medicine?

Most people with the flu have only mild illness and usually don’t need medical care, but those who are “very sick” from the virus can take antiviral drugs, according to the CDC. The prescribed medications can shorten the length of the illness and prevent serious complications.

Tamiflu, the most commonly used antiviral treatment, is recommended for treatment in people 2 weeks of age and older who have had flu symptoms for no more than two days. Other FDA-approved, CDC-recommended antiviral treatments for last season included Relenza and Rapivab, and more may be suggested for this season as they learn more about any variations in strain and resistance.

In most cases of mild illness, over-the-counter medicines like Tylenol or Motrin can help to alleviate symptoms when combined with ample rest and hydration.

Caucasian woman washing her hands

How can you prevent the flu?

Getting the flu shot and staying home if you’re sick are two of the most important ways to reduce transmission. But the CDC says it’s also important to wash your hands frequently, stay hydrated, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze and wipe down surfaces that may have come into contact with contagion, as flu germs can live on them for up to 24 hours.

Dr. Travis Stork, an ER physician, host of The Doctors and a member of PEOPLE’s Health Squad, suggests getting the vaccine and focusing on preventative measures, like skipping handshakes and hugs. “During cold and flu season, it’s not rude!” he reassures. He also echoes the CDC’s suggestions of washing your hands often with soap and water and regularly disinfecting phones, keyboards and door handles. He also advises being extra focused on getting enough sleep, staying active and eating well.

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