Parents are understandably freaking out about the severity of this year's flu, which has so far killed 30 children, according to the CDC. For the first time, the entire country except Hawaii and DC is reporting widespread flu, with many cases from a particularly nasty strain called H3N2. The first question on every parent's mind is, "What can I do to keep my child from catching it?"
Why the vaccine is still worth getting
Your best bet to avoid the flu is still to get the flu shot. "Obtaining the flu shot now will provide protection for the next few months during flu season, which may extend into April," Dawn Nolt, MD, MPH, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Committee on Infectious Diseases, tells Parents.com.
The flu vaccine is admittedly not perfect, and this year's seems particularly weak against the virus. "The effectiveness of the flu vaccine is estimated at up to 30 percent for the predominant flu strain circulating in communities," Dr. Nolt says. She adds that the vaccine contains protection against other strains as well—and in addition, "the antibodies generated by the vaccine may provide cross-protection against those strains not represented by the vaccine," she says.
But if the flu shot contains the deadly strain of H3N2, why doesn't it work that well against it? "This subtype is covered by this year's vaccine, but because of the severity of the H3N2 virus, it may not offer full protection," Mark N. Simon, MD, Chief Medical Officer of OB Hospitalist Group, tells Parents.com. "It's likely that the H3N2 strain is more virulent because the virus has mutated, and our immune system is still catching up and can't fight it as effectively."
But even with its shortcomings, having the vaccine is better than having no protection at all. "The CDC notes that 80 percent of cases of pediatric flu [historically] are children who weren't vaccinated," Dr. Simon says. Plus, he adds, "people who get the flu after being immunized tend to have a milder case and recover quicker."
Who should get the flu shot?
You should you get the shot as well as your children, since the flu can lead to other complications that can make you sicker. "About one-third of cases of pneumonia are caused by respiratory viruses, the most common of which is influenza," Dr. Simon says. Even after recovery, you risk passing the virus along to your children or others who are more susceptible to the flu's effects. "Pregnant women and babies are especially vulnerable," says Dr. Simon.
If you are pregnant, it's safe to get the vaccine, Dr. Simon says. "There is a wide body of evidence about the safety of flu vaccines, many of which are thimerosal-free, for women and their babies," he says. Yet, complications from catching the flu could lead to preterm labor. Another benefit to getting the vaccine during pregnancy? "If a pregnant mother is immunized against flu, she passes protective antibodies to her unborn baby," Dr. Simon says. "This is particularly important because babies under the age of six months cannot receive the flu vaccine."
What to do if you get the flu
If you suspect you or your child has the flu (symptoms include fever, sore throat and body aches), stay home from work or school, get rest and hydration, and call your doctor. "Medications against the influenza virus called anti-viral drugs [such as Tamiflu] are available by prescription from your primary physician, and can decrease severity and duration of the illness if taken within 48 hours of onset," Dr. Nolt says.
You don't need to rush to the ER unless it's a true crisis. "I advise patients to steer clear of the emergency room if they have mild to moderate symptoms," Elizabeth Suing, a physician assistant at Spectrum Health in Michigan, tells Parents.com. An office visit or trip to urgent care may be more appropriate—or see if your insurance has telehealth benefits, which allow you to connect with a doctor virtually through your smartphone or computer while staying quarantined. "We have treated hundreds of flu patients via our telemedicine program—during these video visits, we have prescribed Tamiflu when necessary," Suing says.
Finally, don't let the media hype overwhelm you with panic. "Until flu season is over, it's difficult to say with certainty if this year will be significantly worse than other years," Suing says. Still, there's no doubt the flu can be dangerous, so vaccination, even late in the season, is your best defense. "The consequences of not being vaccinated could be deadly," says Dr. Simon.