How bad will the 2019/2020 flu season get? Nobody knows for sure, but infectious disease experts say we are off to a rocky start.
The 2019/2020 Flu Season Started Early:
Last year, the flu season lasted 21 weeks. That is how many weeks the proportion of people seeking medical care for influenza-like illness (ILI) was above 2.4 percent of the total. That made last year’s season the longest in a decade. This year, we have already racked up seven weeks at that level. Flu season often lasts through March and sometimes into April. So while we don’t know how long the 2019/2020 flu season will be, the early start could mean it is a long one.
Early Cases Were Mostly Influenza B:
Another unusual feature of the 2019/2020 flu season is that influenza B dominated at the outset. Most winters, the first flu cases are more likely to be one strain or another of influenza A. Then influenza B strains tend to become more common as the winter wanes into spring. Again, we don’t know what lies ahead, but the early prevalence of influenza B is now being overshadowed by various strains of influenza A.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 4.6 million cases of ILI so far this season. More than 39,000 people around the country needed hospital care for their illness and 2,100 people died. Over the past two flu seasons, total deaths have approached 60,000.
How Holiday Travel Could Contribute to the 2019/2020 Flu Season:
Flu spreads readily over the holiday season when people are traveling. Airports are hubs for people trading viruses from a lot of different regions. Even people traveling by car may be exposed to flu viruses when they fill the tank with gasoline, for example.
People are most likely to spread the disease even before they start to feel very ill, within the first few days. This also makes workplaces hothouses for virus exchange. Unless people are encouraged to stay home if they are under the weather, they can easily infect many others at the office. People who work in restaurants or coffee shops may find it especially difficult to take sick time, even though from a public health perspective, they need it most.
What Should You Do?
The CDC wants you to know that it is not too late to get a flu shot. Even though the 2019/2020 flu season started early, you can still get protection from the vaccine. In many places, it is available free of charge. Just make sure the person administering it does it correctly, to avoid prolonged arm soreness. People who are immunized may still get the flu, but they are less likely to need hospitalization.
Other steps to take include staying away from people who are ill with flu, if you can. Public health experts recommend conscientious hand-washing whenever you must touch things that other people use, such as elevator buttons or the pump handle at the gas station.
Common sense suggests you should make sure to get enough sleep, maintain appropriate humidity in your home and bolster your immune system. How do you do that? Make sure you maintain adequate vitamin D levels, possibly with a daily supplement (BMJ, Feb. 15, 2017).
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Don’t forget, if you do get the flu, stay home and don’t spread it to others. Do get in touch with your doctor, though. Physicians can prescribe antiviral medicines that will help speed recovery and prevent some of the more serious complications of influenza. Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and baloxavir (Xofluza) should both be useful during the 2019/2020 flu season.
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. Read Terry's Full Bio.
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Martineau AR et al, "Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: Systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data." BMJ, Feb. 15, 2017. doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i6583
Hawkins J et al, "Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) supplementation effectively treats upper respiratory symptoms: A meta-analysis of randomized, controlled clinical trials." Complementary Therapies in Medicine, Feb. 2019. DOI: 10.1016/j.ctim.2018.12.004
Vetvicka V & Vetvickova J, "Immune-enhancing effects of Maitake (Grifola frondosa) and Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) extracts." Annals of Translational Medicine, Feb. 2014. DOI: 10.3978/j.issn.2305-5839.2014.01.05
Mallard B et al, "Synergistic immuno-modulatory activity in human macrophages of a medicinal mushroom formulation consisting of Reishi, Shiitake and Maitake." PLoS One, Nov. 7, 2019. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0224740
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