The Severe Flu Season: 12 Questions Answered by Dr. David Katz

(WTNH) — The flu epidemic is now widespread in the United States with millions falling ill and many deaths reported. As of the week ending Jan. 6, there have been 1,015 positive cases of the flu in Connecticut, with 456 hospitalizations since late August. It is shaping up to be a bad flu season in terms of the number of people getting infected and the severity of it.

Dr. David Katz, the Director of Yale University‘s Prevention Research Center at Griffin Hospital spoke about the flu in Connecticut as well as answered your questions live on Facebook with News 8’s Director of Audience Development, Vanessa Wojtusiak.

1. Which strain of the flu is the worse?

The one that is causing the most harm right now is Influenza A, H3N2.

2. Is it too late to get the flu shot?

No, it is not too late. Getting one also contributes to “herd immunity”, there are less people in the public exposed if you get the flu shot. The peak flu season is between November and February, but it can extend into the spring going well into March or April. We will know next week as to the prediction of whether this will be a long flu season or a short spike with it winding down.

3. Which type of flu vaccine should I receive?

There are several options, however, Dr. Katz recommended the Quadrivalent influenza vaccine. This vaccine covers four different strains of the flu — including the two more prominent ones, Influenza A, H3N2 as well as H1N1. There is also a Trivalent vaccine which covers the two Influenza A types as well as a strain of Influenza B. Either are good to receive as they both cover the strains prominent this season. There is a high-potency version of the vaccine or a booster for those over the age of 65, with chronic ailments that effect the lungs and the heart as well.

4. How effective is the flu vaccine?

Estimates in Connecticut have been that it is 34% effective against Influenza A, H3N2. A trait of this particular strain is known for alluding the effectiveness of the vaccine, however.

5. Is the vaccine safe and are there adverse reactions?

There is a lot of anti-vaccination sentiment online, however, the vaccine is safe. It is possible to have adverse reactions, however, that depends on your body and what qualifies as adverse, whether it’s shoulder soreness from the injection point or something else.  You’re triggering an immune system response so you can feel under the weather for a couple of days. Sometimes the “adverse reactions” don’t have anything to do with the shot. Random events will happen whether or not people get the vaccine. In Connecticut, Dr. Katz hasn’t heard of any reports of major adverse reactions.

6. Does Tamilflu work?

Tamiflu is effective for this strain and a class of medication called a neuraminidase inhibitor. The names of the flu have H and N in their titles. H is hemagglutinin. N refers to neuraminidase which is a key protein in how the virus makes its’ living inside our bodies. Tamiflu interferes with the action of that protein and slows down the replication of the flu virus. It is not used routinely as a preventative measure, however, if you take it at the early signs of flu, early treatment shortens the course and prevents complications. Medications like Tamiflu are highly effective when taken early. If you’re late by a day or two, the benefit drops off.

7. What are preventative measures for newborns or those who can not receive the flu vaccine?

Avoid exposure to the virus. Keep newborns and those people away from people who are sick, coughing, sneezing. Be overly-cautious.

8. What should you do if you’re experiencing symptoms?

Don’t wait very long to decide whether this is something you should bring to your doctor’s attention. In the middle of a flu outbreak, think of this slogan: “if in doubt, check it out” If you’re achy and have a sore throat, coughing, fever, muscle aches, any of the classic signs of the flu,  as soon as you’ve got two or three of those symptoms, it’s time to get checked out. Call your doctor’s office and ask what they want to do, whether it’s coming in or a prescription over the phone. Sometimes when the doctor’s offices are overloaded during flu outbreaks, they can call-in a prescription. Worse case, you’re taking a medication that you didn’t need, but more often than not, if it sounds like the flu during the flu outbreak then it is.

9. Does the change in weather – going from cold to warm to cold – cause the flu?

There is folklore about what weather does to our health, the idea that getting cold will give you a cold and most of it isn’t true, per se. In order to get an infection, we have to get infected and temperature doesn’t do that but rapid fluctuations of temperatures do make it traumatic for the body and hard for the body to adapt to so it affects the immune system as a form of stress. When we’re stressed, whether it’s physical or psychological,  the ask for the immune system to handle another attack is diminished. It strains your immune system. If you’re exposed to influenza then, your immune system will do a slightly worse job defending against it and more likely to develop symptoms, the bout is more likely to be severe.

10. Can this strain of the flu morph into pneumonia or other sicknesses?

It only morphs when the surface proteins change. Essentially, when the virus “changes it’s coat”, it does that often which is why we need a new vaccine every year and why protection levels are far from perfect. The flu is just the flu. When the bout is severe, or because of age or underlying condition, the immune system gets overwhelmed, bacteria in the environment co-infect. The flu is viral and usually pneumonia is bacterial so it’s two different causes.  Because your immune system is vulnerable you have a higher chance of picking up bacteria. It’s generally complications that occur. When people die of what seems like the flu, it’s not that the flu was so bad that it killed them, but rather, the flu overwhelmed their immune system . If you have underlying conditions, especially lung and heart conditions, the flu will put a serious strain on your body and complications could be lethal.

11. How many cases of the flu have resulted in death?

People don’t die of the flu, they die from complications, especially those with underlying health conditions or compromised immune systems. Heart attacks, strokes, happen regularly anyway and sometimes aren’t directly correllated. The average flu year in the United States can cause deaths of between 20,000 – 30,000 people. The ability to say how many people died as a direct result is far from perfect.

12. What are some preventative measures that I can take against the flu?

There is no evidence that a specific nutrient can completely prevent the flu, but highly effective is a healthy immune system is part of keeping yourself overall healthy making us less vulnerable to chronic diseases and also the flu. Don’t smoke, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables in your diet, eating well is good for you and a healthy, vital body does a much better job of fighting off infection, a better job of reacting to a vaccine and avoiding complications. Sleep is important for the immune system and can’t be neglected. Stress and exhaustion lowers your body’s ability to fight. Fitness enhances immune system function, however, too much can damage it. Personal hygiene is also important.

You can watch the discussion in its entirety with the video below:

These opinions from Dr. David Katz are for informational purposes not weighing into account personal health history or underlying conditions of viewers. To be safe, always consult with your personal care practitioner.

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