By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH
Jan. 9, 2015 -- This year's flu season is still bad, and it's too soon to say whether it has peaked, officials from the CDC warned Friday.
Latest Cold and Flu News
"This flu season is shaping up to be a severe one, especially for older people, young children, and those with underlying conditions," said CDC director Tom Frieden, MD, referring to conditions like asthma, sickle cell disease and other health problems.
During the press briefing, Frieden urged people who haven't gotten vaccinated to get a flu shot. People with symptoms should get to their doctor quickly for antiviral medicines to reduce the severity of the illness, he said.
For the week ending Jan. 3, widespread or high flu activity had been reported in 46 states, according to the CDC. "Flu is widespread almost everywhere," he said.
More than 5,400 flu-related hospitalizations have been reported, according to the CDC, although that data is from only 13 states and doesn't reflect the total number. Twenty-six children have died. The CDC doesn't track adult deaths from the flu, but the proportion of deaths attributed to both pneumonia and flu is slightly above the "epidemic" threshold after dipping below it last week.
This season's dominant flu strain, H3N2, is one that public health officials did not figure would be common this year, Frieden said. So the flu vaccine ''cocktail'' did not include that, and immunization is not as effective as in some past years. The CDC expects to have an update on vaccine's effectiveness in coming weeks, he said.
"We're right in the middle" of the flu season, Frieden said. But cases might be declining in some states where the flu began early.
On average, a flu season continues for 13 weeks, and the U.S. is about 7 weeks in, he said.
What to Do if You Have Symptoms
This year's vaccine might still offer some protection against other flu strains, Frieden said. So it still makes sense to get it if you haven't yet.
If you catch the flu, or you think you might be coming down with it, let your doctor know ASAP. Antiviral medications can help, Frieden said.
"They work but they aren't being used nearly enough," Frieden said. "They can reduce symptoms, shorten the duration of illness, and reduce complications.''
Antivirals "could keep you out of the hospital, they could keep you from going to the intensive care unit, and they may even save your life."
The CDC issued a reminder to doctors to use the drugs when needed.
Some doctors might be reluctant to prescribe the drugs if the ideal 2-day window from symptom onset has passed, Frieden said. "While antiviral drugs work best when used early, a benefit may be gotten if they are given later," he said. Doctors don't need to get flu test results before prescribing, he said -- they can prescribe them based on symptoms. Frieden said there isn't a danger of building resistance to the antivirals. The dose is twice a day for 5 days
There is no ''overall shortage'' of antivirals at this point, he said. But there are shortages in some areas, so people might need to call around to find the drugs.
Antivirals may be expensive, but Frieden pointed out that insurance coverage helps defray the cost, and the copay can be far less than copays for hospitalization.
If you have flu symptoms, use common sense in not spreading it to others, Frieden said.
- Stay home from work or school.
- Avoid contact with others.
- Get medical help as soon as possible.
SOURCES: Press briefing, CDC. CDC Situation Update: "Summary of Weekly FluView, Jan. 9." News release, FDA.
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