The season's flu has been declared an epidemic—should you panic?

Everyone's talking about this year's terrible flu season, but it's not time to panic—it's time to round up your family to get their flu shots.

The season's flu has been declared an epidemic—should you panic?

Photo: iStockphoto

For many families, getting the flu is more than just annoyance—it’s devastating. The flu can hit young children, seniors and those with compromised immune systems especially hard. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported earlier this month that 22.7 out of every 100,000 people in the US were being hospitalized for the flu and, in the 2017-2018 flu season so far, 20 children have died from influenza in the US. It's tragic and it's being called an exceptionally bad flu season, but, sadly, this is not altogether unusual. In fact, to find a worse season, you only have to go back as far as 2014-2015.

Though the outbreak has been labelled an epidemic since November, the CDC says it’s typical for any flu season to be labelled an epidemic. What sets this year’s flu apart is that it has been widespread throughout the continental United States. “The simplest way to describe it is that flu is everywhere in the U.S. right now,” says Dan Jernigam, director of the influenza division in CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

The CDC also says the prominent strain of flu has been more severe. H3N2, which is a type of influenza A, is often linked to worse illness, which can be especially dangerous for kids and the elderly, and it’s known to be a difficult strain to vaccinate against.

This year’s flu also struck earlier—in Canada there have been 15,572 lab-confirmed cases of the illness, while last season saw just 8,976 at this time of year. Though the CDC, which tracks the spread of the flu across the US, says the flu has likely now peaked, that doesn’t mean that we’re in the clear. Unfortunately, it takes several weeks for the virus to slow down, and influenza B viruses, which are likely to show up later in the season, are already circulating in Canada.

This all sounds pretty confusing and a bit worrisome, right? What it all means is that it’s not time to panic, but if you haven't gotten your flu shot yet, it's not too late to do so. The flu shot isn’t perfect—it can’t protect against all strains of the virus—but it is still one of our best defences against influenza. And it's likely to be more effective at defending against the B viruses that are likely to be going around in coming weeks. And because the flu season is severe most years it's important to get your flu shot on an annual basis. It's also time to be extra vigilant about your hand-washing hygiene, and to be sure you're passing on those skills to your kids.

If your child shows sign of influenza (think fever, coughing, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headaches, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea), keep them home from school or daycare so they don't infect other kids, who might have weaker immune systems and be more prone to complications, and get the little ones to a doctor sooner than later. Kids under five, or those with pre-existing conditions like asthma, are more at risk for the flu to turn serious. Your healthcare provider can offer antiviral medications that help them fight off the illness, but they work best when they’re given early.

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