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What you need to know for 2018 flu virus season

By Carolyn Sistrand, AccuWeather staff writer

As the leaves starts to fall and the weather cools down, an all too familiar foe returns: the flu. The yearly, unwelcome visit from the virus tends to last from late fall into early spring, targeting whoever may be in its path.

The flu can be a hassle for whoever may fall victim to it. No one wants to call out of work sick or pick their child up from the nurse's office. Although it can be unavoidable at times, there are ways to try and stay healthy and ahead of the virus this season.

What to expect from this year’s strain

According to Lynnette Brammer, an epidemiologist in the influenza division and lead for the influenza domestic surveillance team at the Centers for Disease Control, said it is hard to know exactly which strain will have the biggest impact this season.

Through creating a vaccine that is prepared for most or all strains they have seen in the past, the hope is that they can be better prepared for the unpredictable.

Flu season 2017-18

Henry Beverly, 73, battles the flu while tended to by nurse Kathleen Burks at Upson Regional Medical Center in Thomaston, Ga., Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

“What we do is we look at what viruses that are circulating worldwide,” said Brammer. “The hallmark of influenza viruses is their ability to constantly change."

The virus does not always stay consistent with the strains that scientists predict and anticipate. This continuous, constant change the flu virus experiences is known as an antigenic drift.

Brammer said that spotting a drift, or a different looking virus, is important because it could be spreading. Some new viruses pop up briefly and never return, while others could stick around for the season or longer. It is important to catch these drifts or new viruses as soon as possible so that the current vaccine can be tested for effectiveness. If the current vaccine can not withstand the viruses new characteristics, it could be back to the drawing board.

Last year saw an unusual peak in flu-related doctor's visits, hospitalizations and a more rapid spread of the virus. Constant change in the influenza virus and how early it is in the season right now makes speculation of the flu's spread this year extremely difficult, according Brammer.

Getting the flu

The flu and the common cold have eerily similar symptoms, so much so that people identify the two as being the same thing. Knowing how to distinguish them, however, could save you from a hospital trip and unneeded frustration.

“It is hard sometimes to tell the difference,” said Brammer. “In general influenza tends to be more severe. People will say, 'I felt fine and then an hour later I felt terrible.'”

Common symptoms of the flu are cough, sore throat, headache, muscle aches and fever. Headache, chest discomfort and chills are the symptoms that indicate your cold is actually the flu.

Cold or Flu Symptom Chart

Some people can develop complications from the flu, such a pneumonia. More moderate complications can include sinus and ear infections.

Further, more serious complications are possible if the flu goes untreated or unrecognized. This runs an even greater risk for those already living with other medical issues, such as asthma, heart disease and diabetes.

“For people that have conditions for high risks for severe outcomes of flu, meaning hospitalizations and even death, if those people think they have influenza they need to talk to their doctor,” said Brammer.

The best way to treat the flu is by staying home and resting. Brief isolation avoids the spread of the virus to other people while also reducing the stress put on your body. Rest is especially important for those with outstanding medical conditions.

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Getting vaccinated

“The first thing they need to do is get vaccinated,” said Brammer. “That is the first and best tool to prevent influenza and severe influenza.”

Households are highly encouraged, especially those who have young children, elderly people and people with preexisting medical conditions, to all get vaccinated.

To flu vaccine skeptics, Brammer said that even though the vaccine does not guarantee that you will not get the flu, it can decrease your chances.

“We would all love to have influenza vaccines that work better,” said Brammer. “But even if you’re talking about a vaccine that is only 40-60 percent effective, on a population level, that reduces the number of illnesses requiring doctors visits by tens of thousands. It can reduce death by thousands.”

Brammer notes a recent study of pregnant women who are vaccinated are 40 percent less likely to be hospitalized for respiratory-related symptoms.

Pediatric studies, according to Brammer, have found that 80 percent of flu-related pediatric deaths were in children who did not get a flu vaccine. She also notes that studies have shown that the vaccine has been effective for 50 percent of high-risk children and 65 percent effective for healthy children.

“It is not 100 percent and preventing illness for a disease as common and transmittable as flu is really hard, but what we really want to do is prevent these more severe outcomes.”

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