Early signs point to this year’s flu season being the worst in years

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A weekly report released Friday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adds numbers to previous predictions of a worrying flu season.

The number of reported hospitalizations as of Oct. 29 has exceeded every recent year during the same week since the 2010-2011 season. While not a direct count of cases, the number of people hospitalized with a virus like influenza or COVID-19 reflects the health care burden of a disease and shows how many people are being harmed.

However, experts have warned that this season could produce more flu illnesses, depending on how severe it was in Australia, a country where flu viruses tend to first develop during the opposite winter season before migrating to the northern hemisphere.

“It’s hard to anticipate what trends we’ll see with each flu season, but we generally look to the southern hemisphere for clues,” said Dr. Brittany Mueller, an internal medicine physician at Atlantic Medical Group Primary Care. “Australia tracks its flu cases very carefully, and we know that its flu season started earlier than usual this year and had a high number of cases.”

Also, the use of masks and the public health precautions we have been taking during COVID-19 which have also resulted in historically low flu seasons that are starting to fade. And another respiratory disease known for its effect on young children and babies, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infectionit is also causing waves of disease.

“Now that people are out and about without masks, traveling a lot and once again having vacations, going to restaurants and religious services, and going back to school and the office, there are more opportunities for the [flu] the virus circulates,” Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, told AARP.

Each year, flu vaccines are modified to better reflect circulating virus strains, including the formulations available this year. And because the worst part of flu season in the US is probably still a couple of months away, getting vaccinated now will still offer you protection against serious illness. There are also some antiviral treatment options to consider, especially if you are at higher risk for severe influenza or complications from the flu.

This is what you should know.

Should I get a flu shot?

Yes, most people should. The CDC made a universal recommendation after the 2010-11 flu season that everyone (with rare exceptions) should get a flu shot. There are different flu shots available, depending on your age and other factors.

And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic: What could be a week of being out of commission for you could be a hospital stay or worse for someone else who comes down with the flu. Getting vaccinated minimizes your risk of serious illness, but it can also reduce your risk of spreading the flu to others.

What are the treatments for the flu? Who is at high risk?

Most people who get the flu recover at home and you can manage symptoms by staying hydrated, resting, and taking medication, if needed. But others are more susceptible to severe illness or complications from the flu, particularly adults age 65 and older, very young children under age 5, and people who are immunocompromised or have an underlying health condition.

There are four antivirals approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat the flu this season: oseltamivir phosphate (trade name Tamiflu), zanamivir (Relenza), peramivir (Rapivab), and baloxavir marboxil (trade name Xofluza). . They have different treatment regimens and are approved for different age groups, but if you or your child are at high risk for complications from the flu, you should contact your doctor as soon as you develop flu symptoms or suspect you have been exposed. since antivirals seem to work better the sooner they are started, specifically two days after the onset of symptoms, according to the CDC. Healthy people who are likely to develop a milder case of the flu can also take an antiviral, but the CDC specifically recommends these treatments for people at higher risk.

If you are concerned about the risk of complications from the flu or think you are at increased risk, contact your doctor. But here are some groups of people who are at higher risk of complications from the flu and should contact their doctor for further treatment, according to the CDC:

  • Older adults (generally over 65 years of age)
  • Children under 5 years of age (children and infants under 2 years of age are most at risk)
  • Pregnant people and those who have recently given birth.
  • People who live in nursing homes
  • People with lung or heart conditions, such as asthma, COPD, and heart disease.
  • People with kidney, liver, or blood disorders, including sickle cell disease.
  • Those with metabolic disorders.
  • People with diabetes or endocrine disorders.
  • People with neurological or neurodevelopmental conditions.
  • People with a weakened immune system.

People of some races and cultures are also more likely to get very sick from the flu. Indigenous peoples are at higher risk for complications from the flu, including pneumonia and bronchitis, according to the CDC.

How old do you have to be to get a flu shot?

Babies 6 months and older (and everyone older) can get a flu shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics say it’s safe to get the flu vaccine at the same time as the COVID-19 vaccine, which now includes the new COVID-19 booster.

Keep in mind that while it is safe to receive both vaccines at the same time, you are more likely to experience mild and temporary side effects from the vaccine, such as muscle aches, if you receive the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu vaccine at the same time. time, one study found.

A cup of tea with a box of tissues and medicine

Frank Grittke/Getty Images

Read plus: Flu Vaccine Side Effects: What’s Normal and What’s a Cause for Concern

What flu shot should I get?

The flu shot you receive will likely depend on your age. Specific higher-dose vaccines are recommended for adults 65 years of age and older, who may need an additional immunity boost. All of the flu shots available this year are quadrivalent, meaning they are designed to protect against four different flu viruses.

There are a few different types of flu vaccines, including standard-dose flu vaccines for adults younger than 65 years, nasal vaccines containing live but weakened versions of the flu virus for people ages 2 to 49, and stronger formulations intended for older adults.

The CDC does not have a specific recommendation for most people under the age of 65. But there may be special considerations or guidance for other adults, including people who are pregnant, those with a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome, and people who have had a serious illness. allergic reaction to a vaccine in the past, according to Mueller.

If you are over 65: The CDC recommends that you receive the Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent Vaccine, Flublok Quadrivalent Recombinant Flu Vaccine, or Fluad Quadrivalent Adjuvanted Flu Vaccine, if possible. These flu shots have been shown to elicit a stronger immune response in older adults.

When to get vaccinated against the flu

The CDC recommends that most people get it in September or October, but getting one after October will likely still be effective in protecting you before the peak of flu season, which usually begins to peak around December and continues till March.

“It takes about two weeks to build up the antibodies, which will last about six months,” Mueller said. “That will take us through most of the winter months, when the flu tends to be prevalent in the Northern Hemisphere.”

Where to get a flu shot

The flu shot campaign is different from the COVID-19 vaccine campaign, which is free to everyone because it was paid for by the federal government and strategically available through a vaccine search website.

But you should still be able to find a flu shot relatively easily. If you have a primary care doctor, you can get one at his or her office. If you don’t have a health care provider, you can call a pharmacy or health clinic near you to see if one is available. They may ask your age to see if they have the recommended vaccine for you.

Keep in mind that when you see an ad for “free flu shot” at a pharmacy like this one, it usually means it’s free under most insurance plans. If you have any health insurance (including Medicaid), you should be able to find a free or discounted flu shot. However, if you decide to make a doctor’s appointment, the office visit could be an added expense, even if the flu shot was free.

How much does a flu shot cost without insurance?

If you don’t have any insurance, you may still be able to get a free flu shot at your local health department or community clinic, both of which often host pop-up events at the start of flu season. You can also pay out of pocket at a doctor or pharmacy; the cost of the injection itself is usually between $20 and $75.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

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