With flu season now in full swing — causing widespread illness in 46 states — health officials across the country are reporting waves of misery, rising hospitalizations and some deaths.
It is still too soon to say just how bad this flu season will be, but there are troubling signs in some places. For example:
• The Ohio Department of Health on Friday reported 2,104 flu-associated hospitalizations so far, up from 369 by the same time a year ago.
• California Department of Public Health officials said that flu contributed to the deaths of 27 people younger than age 65 across the state by the end of December, up from four deaths a year ago.
• In California’s Santa Barbara County, six people over age 65 died of flu in just the last two weeks; that’s double the number that died in last year’s entire flu season, officials said. "What we are seeing is unprecedented compared to the last 10 years of flu seasons,” said Charity Dean, Santa Barbara County public health officer.
• A pregnant woman died from the flu in Tennessee, becoming the fourth person in that state reported to die of flu this year, officials said. The three other reported deaths were in children.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in an update posted Friday, said 13 children nationwide had died of flu so far this season. About 100 children have died in each of the past several flu seasons.
The season got off to an early start and the number of states reporting widespread activity jumped from 36 to 46 in the last week of December, CDC said.
The overall impact can vary greatly year to year, but flu always takes a substantial toll. CDC estimates that influenza has caused 9 million to 35 million illnesses, 140,000 to 710,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 to 56,000 deaths in the United States each year since 2010. In many cases, hospitalizations and deaths do not show up in official reports, for a variety of reasons — including the fact that most people with flu are never tested for it and that states are not required to report adult flu deaths.
One reason this could be a bad season: A majority of patients tested so far carried a type of influenza virus, called H3N2, that is linked to increased hospitalizations and deaths in young children and people over age 65, according to CDC. Vaccines often are less effective against these viruses than other flu viruses.
Still, CDC officials and other experts continue to say vaccination is the best bet, and not too late.
“We don’t know when it’s going to end, but we anticipate at least several more weeks of flu activity,” said Christy Sadreameli, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and a volunteer spokesperson for the American Lung Association. Even if the vaccine takes a couple weeks to reach full effectiveness, it should offer some quicker protection, she said.
If you or your children do get flu symptoms — which typically include fever, cough, body aches, headaches and fatigue — it is always a good idea to call your doctor for advice, she said.
That advice might include starting an antiviral medication. Such medications can shorten the illness and reduce complications, especially if started within 48 hours of the first symptoms, CDC says. The agency recommends treatment for anyone who is hospitalized with the flu or is at high risk of complications due to health conditions ranging from asthma to heart disease to obesity, or due to age (under age 2 or over age 65). Otherwise healthy adults also can also benefit if the medications are started quickly enough, CDC says.
And we can all protect one another during flu season by covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or an elbow, washing our hands frequently and staying home when we are sick, the lung association says.