The news headlines all read, “The flu has reached an epidemic level in the U.S. this year causing NY State to declare a public health emergency.”

Sound scary? Well most years the flu reaches an epidemic level, but last year we luckily had a mild flu season. The scary part is this year the Flu is blamed for more deaths than it was at this time last year including 15 children so far according to the CDC. It’s still early in the flu season, so we really don’t know how long the flu will be around and how many more deaths we may see.

My plan was to report on the Flu for KTLA (CW LA) tomorrow morning, but then I came down with the flu myself on January 1st. Happy New Year to me! I felt miserable: fever, cough, body aches, sore throat, headache, just can’t get comfortable. I’m also 38 weeks pregnant! So I chose to stay home, not share my germs with the newsroom and instead write a blog that answers the most common questions people are asking right now about the Flu.

Why is this year’s flu causing more severe cases?

The type of flu that is going around is called Influenza A (H3N2), which is often linked to more serious diseases and more complications than other flu strains. That combined with the fact that the flu vaccine isn’t as effective against H3N2 as we had hoped is making for a much more serious flu season.

How many people usually die from the flu each year?

The flu kills about 36,000 people a year in the United States, though the range varies greatly each year. Most deaths are caused by complications from the flu, such as pneumonia. Children under 2 years old, adults over 65 and pregnant women (like me) are at a greater risk of suffering from flu complications. People with medical conditions like asthma, lung disease, heart disease and people with weakened immune systems are also at risk.

If the flu vaccine isn’t as effective is it still worth getting?

It’s always worth getting the flu vaccine. Yes, I did get the flu shot this year, as did my husband and all of the grandparents. My boys (ages 7 and 9) chose the Flu Mist. Even this year, there are still 3 other strains that are covered in the flu vaccine. It’s still 61% effective, which is much better odds than zero if you don’t get it. And often those that get the flu vaccine and still get the flu have a more mild case with fewer complications than those who haven’t received any flu vaccine. I do feel that my flu was more mild since I did have the vaccine. After all, I thought I just had a cold the first 4 days and finally today, thought, I’ll test myself for the flu……Flu A positive.

The flu mist is a great option for healthy children without asthma age 2 and older. Studies show it’s even more effective than the shot in kids age 3 to 8, however, this year’s flu mist isn’t effective against H1N1. Luckily we aren’t seeing much H1N1 this winter and many older kids may have H1N1 immunity from past infection.

If you think you have the flu, how do you know when to just stay home and rest or go to your doctor or the ER?

Infants, young children or anyone with underlying asthma, lung disease or immunodeficiency should see their doctor right away.

If the flu is caught early, an antiviral medication can be prescribed to shorten the course of the flu, decrease severity and complications and even decrease transmission to other family members. Family members can also be given antiviral medication prophylactically to decrease the risk that they catch the flu. My family will all be starting Tamiflu today to decrease the chance that they will catch the flu. Especially important with our new baby coming next week.

Go to the ER immediately if:

You or your child has difficulty breathing, can’t keep down fluids, or looks really sick. Also, if you do have the flu, you get better, and then a couple of days later the fever comes back and/or your cough worsens, that may mean you have a secondary bacterial infection (such as pneumonia) that needs treatment so see your doctor right away.

How can I avoid getting the flu in the first place?

Flu germs can spread up to 6 feet through coughs and sneezes. So if I have the flu, and I cough and sneeze, likely half of those around me will catch the flu. Unfortunately I did infect my dad with the flu (before I had symptoms) who baby sat for us New Year’s Eve. The flu virus can also live on surfaces for up to eight hours.

So in addition to the flu vaccine, practice proper hand washing — for at least 20 seconds several times a day. Clean and disinfect handles, counters, faucets, remote controls and anything else that the sick person has touched daily.

Stay home when you are sick and avoid anyone who looks sick.

If somebody in the house has the flu, try to separate them from others. Make a sick room that you disinfect daily. If you have a baby or young child with the flu, try to hold and cuddle them with their chin over your shoulder so they don’t cough directly in your face (I believe that’s how I caught the flu from a young patient at my office) and wash your hands often.

Any other Flu questions? Ask me @DrMommyCalls or facebook.com/DrMommyCalls

Wishing you and your family a healthy, happy and safe 2015!

Dr. Tanya

Dr. Tanya Remer Altmann is a UCLA-trained pediatrician based in Southern California, an American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson and best-selling author.

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