The flu virus spreads each year in the late fall and winter. These epidemics tend to peak in communities after three weeks and begin to decrease after an additional three to four weeks.
During the 2014-2015 flu Season, flu activity in the United States increased through November before peaking in late December. Influenza A (H3N2) viruses were predominant, but the prevalence of influenza B viruses increased late in the season, the CDC reports.
People 65 years and older were most severely affected during the latest flu season and accounted for 60 percent of hospitalizations. Young children are more vulnerable to flu-related complications as well. The CDC notes that 141 children died as a result of the flu this past year. Children under 4 had the second-highest hospitalization rate in the 2014-2015 Season.
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Flu viruses spread through tiny droplets of fluid that contain the virus. When people with the flu cough, sneeze, or touch something after wiping their noses or mouths, they can pass these droplets to the next person.
When others inhale infected droplets from the air or make contact with infected surfaces and then touch their mouths or noses, they can become infected. The flu can spread up to six feet away, the CDC cautions, and people with the flu can pass their illness to others even before they develop symptoms.
What Are the Symptoms of the Flu?
If you are infected with the flu virus, your symptoms probably will develop one to four days later. Flu symptoms usually come on suddenly and may include:
Digestive issues like vomiting and diarrhea
Dry cough and runny nose
In some cases, the flu can lead to other, more serious complications, especially in young children, older adults, and people with preexisting health conditions. Complications of the flu may include:
Ear or sinus infection
Worsening of a pre-existing condition
Confusion or delirium
How to Manage the Flu?
Most people can reduce their risk of developing the flu by getting the annual flu vaccine in early fall, recommended for everyone 6 months and older.
Getting vaccinated by October can help ensure that you are protected before flu season begins, but it’s never too late in the flu season to get vaccinated, the CDC advises.
Scientists can’t predict with 100 percent certainty what each flu season will be like. Each year,the timing, severity, and length of flu season changes, the CDC adds.
Two basic types of viruses cause the flu: A and B. Influenza A can cause moderate to severe illness in people of all ages as well as animals. Influenza B causes milder illness and affects only people, particularly kids, the Immune Deficiency Foundation (IDF) explains.
Different types of flu viruses are identified by antigens on their surface. These antigens can change or mutate. When a major change or “shift” occurs, a new flu virus is made, which can cause an epidemic among those who haven’t been vaccinated, the IDF adds.
In the 2014-2015 flu season, the majority of circulating influenza A (H3N2) viruses were different from the component of the seasonal vaccines produced for the Northern Hemisphere, which rendered the vaccine less effective, the CDC reports.
Scientists took steps to address this issue in the 2015-2016 flu season. “This year’s flu vaccine was adjusted to include the strain that drifted last year resulting in decreased effectiveness of vaccine last winter, so hopefully the vaccine will be a better match this year and more effective,” says Christopher Ohl, MD, professor of internal medicine- infectious diseases at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“Influenza vaccine is still the best way to protect against the flu and its complications. Until we have a longer lasting universal vaccine, we all should be getting it every year during the early fall,” Dr. Ohl says.
In addition to doctors’ offices, you can get a flu vaccine at many clinics, health departments, pharmacies, schools, college health centers, and possibly through your employer, the CDC advises.
Consult your doctor before getting the flu vaccine – especially if you've previously had a severe reaction to the flu vaccine, have an allergy to eggs, have a moderate to severe illness with a fever, or have developed Guillain-Barre syndrome within six weeks of getting a flu vaccine.
Coping With the Flu
Treatment with antivirals can help ease symptoms and help you recover more quickly. They can also help prevent complications among those at high risk, including older people, pregnant women, young children, and people with certain medical conditions.
These drugs works best when taken within 48 hours of getting sick, but they can still help if you take them later on in the course of your illness, the CDC notes.
If you do get the flu, stay home from work or school to avoid spreading flu to other people. Also, make sure you get plenty of rest, avoid cigarette smoke, and drink lots of fluids.
Call your doctor if your fever lasts more than three days, if you exhibit symptoms like disorientation and chest pain, or you have signs of a complication like pneumonia. Your doctor may perform a blood test to identify the specific virus that is causing your symptoms.
Expect your flu symptoms to begin improving within a week to 10 days. But even after you feel better, don't be surprised if some of your symptoms, especially a cough or fatigue, linger a little while longer.