Year in and year out, influenza proves to be a worthy adversary of modern science.
The flu virus is a nimble quick-change artist that can adapt and mutate, staying a step ahead of our immune systems and most carefully thought-out vaccine strategies.
“This year, flu has made an early and boisterous arrival,” said Dr. John Bower, an infectious disease specialist at Akron Children’s Hospital.
Lab results from Akron Children’s and those coming in at hospitals throughout the country indicate the dominant flu strain this year is the H3N2 strain. This is not a perfect match for this year’s quadrivalent flu vaccine, which aims to protect against 4 strains of the flu.
“It appears that this year’s flu virus has drifted – or mutated – in subtle ways to survive,” said Dr. Bower. “This is not uncommon. Influenza has a remarkable ability to change and adapt.”
This news suggests we will have higher rates of hospitalizations for the flu this year, and possibly more deaths. The deaths of 5 children this year have already been linked to the flu.
Flu vaccine still recommended
But this sobering news is not a reason to forgo a getting a flu shot (or the FluMist nasal spray) if you or your children have not already been immunized.
According to Dr. Bower, even without a spot-on match, the flu vaccine can help lessen symptoms or shorten the duration of the flu, should you get it.
And we do have powerful antiviral medicines, such as Tamiflu, to help children who are ill enough to require hospitalization.
“Antivirals aren’t a substitute for vaccination,” said Dr. Bower. “Vaccination prevents illness. We should think of antiviral medications as our second line of defense.”
The CDC recommends doctors begin antiviral drugs within 2 days of the onset of symptoms for patients who are at high risk. They include:
- Children younger than 2 years
- Adults or children suffering from chronic diseases, such as asthma, diabetes, lung disease or those who have a suppressed immune system
- Seniors 65 or older
- Pregnant women
- Those who are morbidly obese
- Residents of nursing homes or chronic-care facilities
Reducing your risk for the flu
Symptoms of the flu include a fever of 100 degrees or higher, chills, fatigue, cough and/or sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, headaches and/or body aches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, which is common in children.
In addition to getting the flu vaccine, there are several other ways we all can reduce the spread of influenza and help keep everyone healthy, said Dr. Bower.
They are simple, everyday good habits, such as:
- Washing hands often and thoroughly, especially after coughing and sneezing. Hand sanitizers, such as Purell, are also very effective against the flu.
- Follow proper cough and sneeze etiquette and model these techniques for children. These include carrying tissues and putting used tissues in the trash basket. If a tissue isn’t available, cough and sneeze into your upper sleeve, rather than your hands.
- Stay home from work or school if you have symptoms of the flu.
Seek medical attention for yourself or child if you see a worsening of symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, purple or blue discoloration of the lips, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, sudden dizziness, confusion, severe or persistent vomiting or diarrhea, seizures, or if flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough.