The flu and you: 8 things to know

ATLANTA -- The flu season is well underway and this year is especially bad.

Posted Updated

Helena Oliviero
, Cox Newspapers

ATLANTA -- The flu season is well underway and this year is especially bad.

Hospitalizations are on the rise. And the deadly flu epidemic spreading across the nation has now claimed the lives of 37 children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

The flu can have a range of symptoms and effects, from mild to severe and can include sore throat, runny nose, vomiting and body aches. Most healthy people -- including children -- can recover from the flu without problems and don't need to go to the emergency center or be hospitalized.

Here are 8 things you need to know about this year's flu season:

1. The flu season remains widespread in 49 states (every state except Hawaii). Reports of flu-like illnesses continued to increase through the third week of January, according to an update released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Based on the latest data, the flu season has not yet peaked.

2. This year's flu season is particularly harsh because of a nasty predominant strain. This season, the predominant flu strain is H3N2, a form of influenza A. This flu strain is associated with more severe illness, especially among children and the elderly. This strain is included in this year's flu vaccine, but viruses can change and this particular strain tends to mutate more than other strains. The H3N2 strain also circulated during the 2014-2015 season, another severe season for flu.

3. This year, it's not just the usual older residents over 65 who are being hit particularly hard as flu season rages -- people 50 and older are reeling from flu cases.

While the hospitalization rates are highest among adults 65 and older, health officials said adults ages 50 to 64 were the next most likely to be hospitalized. It's not clear why this is happening. Officials say one possibility may be the mix of viruses circulating this season, particularly the H3N2, and the different levels of immunity people have developed to those viruses over time. Baby boomers also tend to have lower rates of flu vaccine than older adults.

4. This year's flu vaccine may not be the best match but experts still strongly recommend getting a flu shot. Vaccine effectiveness typically ranges from 40 to 60 percent in a good year. It's unclear just how effective this year's vaccine is. Information on how effective the vaccine is typically is not available until the flu season is over. Experts say even if the vaccine is not a perfect match, the vaccine can still help lessen the severity of the flu, and reduce the chance of experiencing severe complications from the flu. Getting a vaccine can also reduce the length of the flu if you do get sick.

5. It's not too late to get your flu shot. While getting a vaccine earlier in the season is better, there is still a lot of the season to go and vaccination now could still provide some benefit. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against influenza virus infection

6. There are steps you can to take to avoid getting and spreading the flu. Common sense flu prevention techniques really make a difference. Frequently wash your hands with soap and warm water. (If water is not available, alcohol-based gels are the next best thing.) If you are sick, cover your coughs and sneezes with the inside of your elbow or a tissue that is then discarded. Also, don't go to work, and don't have your children go to school, when sick.

7. What to do if you get the flu. If you do get sick and think you may have the flu, contact your health care provider right away, particularly if you or family members are at high risk for serious flu complications -- young children (under the age of 5), those over 65, pregnant women and those with chronic health conditions such as diabetes or asthma. Even young, healthy adults should call their doctor if symptoms don't improve or get worse after three to four days of illness. There are antivirals such as Tamiflu or Relenza that can help treat the flu, but the medication needs to be taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms to be effective.

8. When to seek immediate medical attention:

In many cases, simple home remedies, including drinking plenty of water and other clear liquids to prevent dehydration and resting at home, is all you need to recover from the flu. But there are times when the flu can lead to serious complications, and medical attention is needed. The following signs may indicate that your body may not be able to fight off the flu on its own:

Difficulty breathing.

Chest or stomach pain.

Dizziness or lightheadedness.

Severe vomiting.

These red flags are the same for adults and children. However, with sick kids, seek emergency medical treatment when the following takes place:

Fatigue or irritability that does not respond to consoling.

Confusion or headache that doesn't go away.

Neck stiffness.

Back pain or weak legs or feet.

Severe muscle pain and/or red urine.

Helena Oliviero writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: holiviero(at)

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