A Rutgers infectious disease expert explains this year’s outbreak and how you can protect yourself

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine every season. It can reduce flu illnesses, doctors’ visits and missed work and school, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations. The vaccine also has been shown to be lifesaving in children. In a 2017 study, the CDC found that flu vaccination can significantly reduce a child’s risk of dying from flu.

This year’s influenza outbreak is increasing in New Jersey and nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which reports more than 6,400 confirmed cases and 30 states with widespread flu activity through January 12.

There have been 19 influenza-associated pediatric deaths during the current season. The 2017-2018 flu season was the most deadly in decades with more than 80,000 deaths, including over 170 pediatric flu deaths.

Infectious disease expert David Cennimo at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School discusses this year’s flu season and how you can protect yourself.

How is New Jersey faring against the rest of the country in influenza cases?

The CDC reports that New Jersey is one of the states where the flu is widespread. Nationwide, as of the beginning of the year, there are more than 6,400 confirmed cases of influenza; New Jersey reports more than 400 cases.

What strains are prevalent this year?

This year, we are seeing influenza A H1N1 and H3N2, and influenza B viruses. The H1N1 strain is predominant.  Last year, we had more H3 strains circulating.

Should people still get vaccinated? 

It is recommended that people still get the flu vaccination if they have not already. Even if you think you had the flu already, it is possible to get a second infection with a different strain, so immunization can still be beneficial. The vaccination can reduce symptoms and duration even if you get the flu. Most family physicians, pediatrician offices, primary care clinics and pharmacies offer the influenza vaccine. You cannot get the flu from the flu shot, but immunity usually takes about two weeks to develop.

People should also continue to practice good hygiene, like washing your hands, coughing into your sleeve, disposing used tissues and staying home if you’re sick. If you are sick, avoiding people who are hospitalized, undergoing cancer treatment or who have diabetes or other chronic illnesses is a good idea.

What complications can accompany the flu?

Sinus and ear infections are examples of moderate complications of flu, but a frequent serious complication, particularly in people with chronic lung disease, is pneumonia. In addition to pneumonia, serious complications include inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle tissues, and multi-organ failure, such as respiratory and kidney failure. The flu itself can lead to respiratory failure and death.

When should you call your doctor? 

Common symptoms include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea. The last two are more common in children than adults. A doctor can prescribe medication to treat the flu. It is most effective if started within the first 48 hours of symptoms, so it’s important to call as soon as flu is suspected.