Every year, flu activity peaks during winter months. Flu is spreading fast this year with indications of this season being more severe than previous years. It’s also been unusually cold. Is there a connection? Does the cold weather cause the flu to spread faster?
Yes, in both direct and indirect ways, according to experts.
The main reason why flu and other respiratory viruses are more likely spread during cold weather is because people tend to stay indoors and in more crowded locations when it's cold outside, according to Dr. Andi Shane, associate professor of pediatric infectious disease and global health at Emory University of School of Medicine and medical director of hospital epidemiology at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.
In other words, close contact with people who are ill helps spread flu and other respiratory viruses.
Cold winter temperatures and dry air may also enable some viruses to survive longer in the environment as well as survive in nostrils and airways, increasing the ability of viruses to replicate and cause infection, she said.
The warmup will start this afternoon. Until then, stay off the roads. While conditions have improved on interstates, surface streets are still iced over and too hazardous for travel, the Georgia Department of Transportation said.
Influenza activity has increased sharply in Georgia and across the United States during the past couple of weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During the first week of the year, which runs from Dec. 31 to Jan. 6, there were 56 hospitalizations in metro Atlanta due to influenza, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. That's up slightly from 51 hospitalizations during the previous week. There have also been five confirmed influenza-related deaths in the state this flu season, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Of those who died from flu-related deaths, all five were older adults. The state agency didn't provide specific ages.
There’s still time precautions to prevent getting the contagious virus infection often associated with a high fever and body aches making you so exhausted and sick you have no choice but to stay in bed.
This season, the predominant flu strain is H3N2, a form of influenza A. This flu strain is associated with more severe illness, especially among children and the elderly. This strain is included in this year’s flu vaccine, but viruses can change and this particular strain tends to mutate more than other strains.
Vaccine effectiveness typically ranges from 40 to 60 percent in a good year.
Experts say even if the vaccine is not a perfect match, the vaccine can still help lessen the severity of the flu, and reduce the chance of experiencing severe complications from the flu. Getting a vaccine can also reduce the length of the flu if you do get sick.
If you do get sick and think you may have the flu, experts urge you to contact your health care provider right away. There are antivirals such as Tamiflu or Relenza which can help treat the flu, but the medication needs to be taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms to be effective.
Credit: MERIS LUTZ / AJC
Credit: MERIS LUTZ / AJC
Dr. Shane provides her key strategies for flu prevention:
—It's not too late to get a flu vaccine. Flu strains usually circulate in Georgia through mid-April. With three or four strains in the flu vaccine, it can be beneficial at any time during the flu season. Everyone 6 months of age and older needs a seasonal flu vaccine every year. Some children younger than 8 years of age will need two doses of flu vaccine spaced one month apart to be fully protected if this is their first year to get a flu vaccine.
— Encourage everyone around you to receive a flu immunization. Encouraging immunization of everyone around you helps protect them and helps to protect you.
— If you are sick, stay away from others. The flu is spread by droplets. Reducing opportunity for physical contact reduces opportunities for the flu to be spread.
— Wash your hands. Practice good hand hygiene —- wash your hands with soap and water or a hand sanitizing product liberally — before and after eating, going to the bathroom, spending time in high-traffic settings such as the mall or airport.
— Cover your cough and sneezes with the inside of your elbow or a tissue that is then discarded. Sneezing into the inside of your elbow or a tissue reduces the chances those droplets (those tiny drops from a sick person) will fly out when you cough or sneeze and land on the mouths or noses of people nearby.
— Take care of yourself. To help your immune system be in good enough shape to fight off the flu and other germs, eat a balanced diet, get plenty of sleep and exercise.
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