There's a Second Flu Season Coming, CDC Says—Here's What You Need to Know
With St. Patrick's Day fast approaching and Easter just around the corner, you can certainly feel the spring in your step as the days get longer and warmer-but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reminding Americans that the flu is still very much a threat. In fact, flu season is expected to continue well into April and the first few weeks of May this year; currently, 48 contiguous states and Puerto Rico are reporting higher levels of flu activity, the CDC reports.
More than 26 million Americans have already suffered through the sickness since flu season kicked off on October 1, with more than 31,200 deaths reported this season alone, 64 of which were children. But those numbers will increase as federal agencies receive more reports of illnesses in the coming weeks, as a new strain of the flu will become more viral than ever.
Dr. Tanaya Bhowmick, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine and an infectious diseases specialist at Rutgers University's Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, says that the most active part of the flu season lasts no more than four months, but adds that the CDC has been correct in their predictions over the last few years. "It's hard to know how long it will last and what the actual peaks will be until the season is over," Bhowmick said. "The CDC's latest graph suggests that we have hit the peak, however, and are slowly coming down from that peak. A few years ago [2015-16 season], the peak was about 1 month later than it is now, and last year it was one to two weeks earlier."
Here, everything you need to know as flu season picks back up.
There's a New Strain of the Flu
According to Healthline, the most viral strain of the flu this year has been H1N1, but the CDC reports that new strains of H3N2 have started to become viral in the Southeast, with cases popping up in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. This new strain has caused more than 65 percent of influenza cases in these areas within the last week. If you've already contracted the flu earlier this season, there's a chance you could become sick again this spring. "There are usually a few strains that are circulating during a given flu season, with one more predominant variety which varies by region," Bhowmick says. "In theory, a person who was infected with one strain earlier in the season could become sick with a different strain at a different time point. However, it's unlikely to happen unless they travel from a region predominant for one strain to an area predominant for the other."
Bhowmick explains that once your body has become infected with a certain strain of the flu, it will learn to fight it off-until it comes into contact with the strain again.
You Can Still Get a Flu Shot
Federal agents at the CDC recently estimated that getting a flu shot "reduced the risk of medically attended influenza-related illness by almost half (47 percent) in vaccinated people this year." Bhowmick says that's a very effective rate. And, according to many experts, it's not too late to get a flu shot if you haven't already done so. "We have possibly seen the peak of this flu season, but there still will be transmissions occurring this month," she says. "If [you] wait until October to get a flu shot, you won't be protected now."
And the sooner, the better-Bhowmick says that the vaccine takes up to two weeks to take effect, and you could contract influenza viruses in the immediate hours and days following your shot. "There's no foreseeable side effects to getting the vaccine if [you] have experienced a winter illness this year," she says. "I wouldn't recommend getting the vaccine if [you have] a fever or active infection." For Americans who are most at risk-including those over the age of 65 and children younger than age 5, as well as those with weak immune systems-getting a vaccine could help stem the virality of the H3N2 strain.
What You Can Do to Stay Healthy
Beyond getting your flu shot, there' a few things you can do to stay healthy as flu season rages on. Keep your immune system healthy by keeping clean-wash your hands frequently, cough and sneeze into fabric or the crook of your elbow, use sanitizer when necessary, and clean germs off countertops and everyday surfaces as best as you can. But it's also important to pay attention to other areas of your holistic health, Bhowmick says; make sure to get plenty of sleep and try to enjoy a balanced diet that features immunity-boosting fruit and vegetables.
If you fall ill, recognize the symptoms of the flu-fever, cough, headaches, fatigue, and abdominal pain-and do your best to stay home to recover as soon as possible.