This year's flu season has started earlier than expected and has already reached high numbers of flu cases in 36 states. California is not one of them, but that likely means we're a couple of weeks behind the East Coast, not that we'll be spared. In fact, this week I saw my first patient of the season who had a positive test for the flu, and Google Flu Trends suggests that the numbers of cases in Los Angeles just started to increase.
It's too early to know whether this season will be worse than previous years. That largely depends on how soon the disease peaks and then declines. But this season has already caused more hospitalizations than usual and a large number of deaths. As of December 20, 18 children have died of the flu.
Part of the reason for this season's intensity is that the predominant virus strain circulating is H3N2, a strain that usually causes more hospitalization and deaths. To make matters worse, though this year's vaccine includes the H3N2 strain, the virus has changed since the vaccine was made, making the vaccine an imperfect match for the circulating virus. Still, an imperfect match is better than none, and health officials still urge everyone over 6 months of age to get vaccinated. Remember, if you're young and healthy getting the shot isn't primarily about protecting yourself. It's about making it less likely that you'll transmit flu to a more vulnerable person that you come into contact with.
Please take a moment to review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) advice about what to do if you get the flu. It has a helpful summary of flu symptoms and treatment, as well as warning signs of severe illness. If you have a mild illness, please stay home. If you have severe illness or are at high risk of developing complications contact your doctor immediately. Antiviral medication works best if taken in the first 48 hours after the onset of symptoms. Let's also all do our best to cover coughs and wash our hands frequently.
I wish you a happy and healthy year. Let's hope this flu season peaks soon and that your first achievement of 2015 isn't getting sick.
Severe Flu Cases on the Rise in U.S. (Wall Street Journal)
This season's flu activity has reached the epidemic threshold, the CDC says (The Washington Post)
Teen's death shows horror of flu epidemic (CNN)
Google Flu Trends for Los Angeles
The Flu: What to do if you get sick (CDC)
Weekly US Influenza Surveillance Report (CDC)
Albert Fuchs, MD, FACP, graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, where he also did his internal medicine training. Certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Dr. Fuchs spent three years as a full-time faculty member at UCLA School of Medicine before opening his private practice in Beverly Hills in 2000. Holding privileges at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, he is also an assistant clinical professor at UCLA's Department of Medicine. This post originally appeared at his blog.