Some states are already experiencing high flu activity with the flu season set to peak next month — and while this year’s virus will change throughout the season and is not expected to produce unusually severe symptoms, Boston-area infectious disease doctors warn the flu can still be deadly.
“Even if you think you’re going to be fine, the flu shot could save your life,” said Dr. Brian Chow, infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center.
Puerto Rico and Louisiana are already experiencing high levels of influenza-like illness and Maryland has reported widespread flu activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Last year, the flu caused more than 48 million illnesses and over 79,000 deaths, according to the CDC. Flu deaths have been reported already in North Carolina, Minnesota and Indiana.
The flu has not fully impacted Massachusetts, though, and Chow said this year’s strain will most likely be H3N2, a common virus that causes typical flu symptoms like muscle aches, fever, cough and chills.
Chow said the strain will change over the course of flu season, which is normal, and could even change enough that the vaccine may not work quite as well by the end of the season.
Chow said peak season is right around the corner, starting in December and winding down in March.
Now is the time to get the flu shot, although it is never too late to be vaccinated. The shot doesn’t offer full protection until about two weeks after administration and is typically about 40 to 50% effective.
Chow said patients cannot get sick from the flu shot, as it is an inactive form of the virus. Patients can opt between a shot or a nasal mist and both stimulate the immune system to protect against the flu.
Even if you get the flu, you are less likely to be hospitalized if you have gotten the vaccine, said Chow.
Dr. David Sidebottom, chief of infectious disease at Lowell General Hospital, said getting the flu shot also helps to protect vulnerable populations like children, the elderly and the immunosuppressed.
“If it’s not relevant to you as an individual … it certainly helps those around you in terms of family members, workplace contacts as well,” said Sidebottom.
In most healthy people, the flu will pass in a couple days, according to Sidebottom, but “you feel like you got hit by a freight train.”
Sidebottom said to avoid getting the flu, get vaccinated and practice good personal hygiene habits like hand-washing and covering coughs and sneezes well.
Patients who get the flu and begin to experience trouble breathing, confusion or have underlying health problems like lung or heart disease should see their doctor.