Fighting the Flu: With the Return of Influenza Season, Now is the Best Time to Protect Yourself
As flu cases pop up again in the U.S., Johns Hopkins experts discuss how prevention is key to keeping flu bugs away from you and your loved ones
Influenza, often referred to as the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by different strains of the influenza virus. Symptoms generally include coughing, runny nose, sore throat, headache, muscle or joint aches, and fatigue, though not everyone with the flu will display the exact same symptoms. The severity of the flu can range from mild to severe cases that lead to hospitalization or even death. Early estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that last season more than 900,000 people were hospitalized and more than 80,000 people died from the flu.
“Based on the Southern Hemisphere’s recent milder flu season, which runs opposite to our flu season and often predicts the outcome here, we are anticipating a less severe flu season in the U.S. this year,” says Lisa Maragakis, M.D., M.P.H., senior director of infection prevention for the Johns Hopkins Health System and associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “However, it’s still important to get the flu vaccine now to build immunity in time for the moment flu viruses start to circulate.” Maragakis adds that the vaccine is updated annually to match the flu virus strains that are predicted to predominate.
This year, both the injectable and nasal spray versions of the vaccine are available. The nasal spray vaccine was not recommended for the previous two seasons due to data indicating it did not work as well as the injectable version. “Both the injectable and nasal spray vaccines are good options this season,” says Aaron Milstone, M.D., M.H.S, associate hospital epidemiologist for The Johns Hopkins Hospital and associate professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The injectable vaccine can be given to children starting at 6 months of age. The nasal spray vaccine is a good option for children who are 2 years old and up and healthy, or, in certain cases, such as those who refuse the flu shot.” People who are allergic to components of the vaccine can consult their doctor to find a suitable vaccine formula.
The flu is easily spread person-to-person through the air by coughing, sneezing or close contact with an infected person. The virus can also live on objects for short periods of time.
“Besides the flu vaccine, we encourage everyone to practice standard infection prevention tactics such as washing your hands, or if you do get sick, cover your mouth, cough into your sleeve, and stay home to rest and avoid spreading illness to others,” Maragakis says.
Flu season typically peaks between December and February, but it can run as late as May.