Folks could be spreading more than a cup of cheer to family and friends at festive get-togethers this month.
Early indications bode for a bad flu season, and medical professionals are advising people to get their annual flu shot to prevent the spread of the virus.
“It’s always concern ahead of the holiday season,” said Mary Anderson, manager of infection control at Edward Hospital in Naperville.
“During the holidays, there is a lot of opportunity for children to be with other kids,” Anderson said. And personal hygiene and concerns about passing germs aren’t necessarily a priority for young ones.
Predicting the outlook for influenza, Anderson said, is as difficult as forecasting the weather.
One clue comes from Australia, where the flu season just ended. Public health officials there reported record-high rates of flu and above-average numbers of hospitalizations and deaths.
Signs in the United States already are pointing to a trouble ahead.
Latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 90 percent of U.S. states report some type of local, regional or widespread flu activity. Two states — Oklahoma and North Carolina — together recorded seven deaths to adults age 65 and older so far this season as a result of influenza.
“The flu is more serious than the common cold,” Anderson said.
Commonly spread when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk, the virus can pass to others up to six feet away, according to the CDC. Although less often, people can get sick from touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it.
This year’s H3N2 virus is cause for concern. “Those strains hit hardest among the very young and very old,” Anderson said.
Most vulnerable to serious flu complications are older adults, very young children, pregnant women and people with certain long-term health conditions.
If everyone else gets vaccinated, the chance of spreading the virus to at-risk populations decreases, Anderson said.
“It’s so important to get a flu shot to protect the people you love,” she said.
A study published in the spring issue of Pediatrics shows a flu vaccination significantly reduces a child’s risk of dying from influenza.
But not all vaccines are the same.
For a second year in a row, the American Association of Pediatrics and the CDC are calling for children to get flu shots instead of the nasal spray vaccine. Vaccines this year cover three strains or four strains.
“Recent studies show the nasal spray is less effective so the CDC recommends against using,” Anderson said.
Experts agree even a vaccine with limited effectiveness will protect some people from getting the flu. And many of those who do get it will have a shorter course of illness, Anderson said.
On average, she said, the flu without a vaccine lasts between five and seven days.
Symptoms include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, and possibly vomiting and diarrhea.
The flu shot is the first line of defense, but people also can prevent the spread of germs with a few simple preventative measures.
“Wash your hands frequently, cover your mouth when you cough, and stay home when you’re sick,” Anderson said.