Influenza (flu) activity remains high in the U.S. this season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The flu season usually peaks between January and March and the 2013-2014 season seems to be following this pattern, but flu infections appear to be more severe and affecting more people in more parts of the country than in previous years.
Twenty-four states reported widespread geographic influenza activity for the week ending February 8, according to the latest report from the CDC. This was a decrease from the number reported the previous week, but the number of people seeing their healthcare practitioner for flu-like illness remained above the national baseline.
There have been over 6,000 people hospitalized with influenza infections confirmed with laboratory tests and 50 children have died due to influenza-associated illnesses so far during the 2013-2014 season, according to the latest report. (For information from the CDC on the latest statistics, see the weekly report)
While most people recover from the flu in a few days without medical intervention, pregnant women, young children, people over age 65, and those with underlying medical conditions are at high risk for serious complications from the infection. People who are at high risk should consult their healthcare practitioner as soon as they experience symptoms of influenza so that appropriate treatment can be prescribed and they can be monitored closely.
Influenza presents as a viral respiratory illness that is easily spread from person to person through coughing, sneezing, and contact with contaminated surfaces. It is caused by types A, B or, rarely, C influenza virus. The H1N1 strain of influenza A that was responsible for the global outbreak in 2009 appears to be the most prevalent form of the flu in the U.S. this season.
While the flu is usually most serious for people under age 5 or over age 65, the presence of H1N1 this season means that healthcare providers are seeing patients between the ages of 18 and 64 also being affected. In particular, at the end of January, California had reported 147 deaths due to H1N1 among young and middle-aged people this season, compared to 14 flu deaths among people under age 65 at the same time last year in that state.
Vaccination remains the best way to prevent the flu. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get a flu vaccine each year, which can be administered as either a shot or a nasal spray. The flu vaccine is designed to protect against the three or four main strains that research suggests will be the most common during the upcoming season. This season's vaccine contains the H1N1 influenza A strain as well as another influenza A virus (H3N2) and an influenza B virus.
Hand washing, cleaning potentially contaminated surfaces, coughing and sneezing into tissues, and, when ill, staying home and limiting contact with other people are all important actions that help prevent influenza from spreading.
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NOTE: This article is based on research that utilizes the sources cited here as well as the collective experience of the Lab Tests Online Editorial Review Board. This article is periodically reviewed by the Editorial Board and may be updated as a result of the review. Any new sources cited will be added to the list and distinguished from the original sources used.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What You Should Know for the 2013-2014 Influenza Season. Available online at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season-2013-2014.htm through http://www.cdc.gov. Accessed February 2014.
(Reviewed September 18, 2013) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People at High Risk of Developing Flu-Related Complications. Available online at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/high_risk.htm through http://www.cdc.gov. Accessed February 2014.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seasonal Influenza (Flu). Situation Update: Summary of Weekly FluView. Available online at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/summary.htm throughhttp://www.cdc.gov. Accessed February 2014.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. FluView weekly report. Available online at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/ throughhttp://www.cdc.gov. Accessed February 2014.
Jaslow, Ryan. CBSNews. Flu season child death toll doubles in CDC's latest flu report. January 17, 2014. Available online at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/flu-season-child-death-toll-doubles-cdc/ through http://www.cbsnews.com. Accessed February 2014.
Bernstein, Sharon. Reuters. California sees high rate of flu deaths in unusually severe season. January 31, 2014. Available online at http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/01/us-usa-flu-california-idUSBREA1004820140201 through http://www.reuters.com. Accessed February 2014.