The last flu season was a record-setter - and not in a good way.
The season started early and hit hard. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the hospitalization rate for those age 65 and up was three to seven times higher than the previous three seasons, and more children died from the flu during 2012-2013 than in the past eight years.
Yet even with the severity of last season's flu, the CDC says the vaccine still prevented 6.6 million illnesses and nearly 80,000 hospitalizations. In particular, the vaccine resulted in 56 percent fewer hospitalizations among those age 65 and older.
The vaccine could have been even more effective had more Americans gotten a flu shot last season. Fewer than half did and the percentage is running about the same so far this season. (The current season is expected to peak around February, so there's still plenty of time for you to get a shot and be protected.)
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According to the CDC's most recent data, only 41 percent of children have gotten their flu shot so far, and less than 40 percent of adults are vaccinated. Among older adults, barely 40 percent of adults age 50 to 64 have gotten their shot. Those age 65-plus are doing a little better: About six in 10 seniors have been vaccinated.
This despite a new national survey by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases that found that nearly all Americans recognize that flu can be serious and contagious and that getting a flu shot is important. Still, a substantial percentage are obviously dragging their feet.
That could be because, as the survey showed, many people have serious misconceptions about the flu, including that it can be treated by antibiotics (it can't) and that the flu shot actually treats the flu (it doesn't, it protects you from getting it.)
Many people also don't realize that the flu is contagious before symptoms start - in other words, you could be exposed without even realizing it.
So will this season be as bad as the last?
"One of the things about flu, it is predictably unpredictable. Last year, it began early and intensively, this year is slower," but new strains can emerge later in the season, says Susan Rehm, M.D., medical direction for the NFID, and vice chair of the department of infectious diseases at the Cleveland Clinic.
Based on Rehm's experience, here are some other important things to know about the flu:
How do I know if I have the flu? It comes on suddenly, "like being hit by a ton of bricks," as Rehm describes it. Fever, aches, chills, fatigue "and feeling like you've got to get to bed," typically means influenza. Stomach upset, or stuffy nose and sore throat are not the flu, she adds.
How long am I contagious? Longer than you might think. You are contagious for another 24 hours after your fever goes away.
Are there any prescription drugs that can help? There are prescription antiviral medicines that can help relieve symptoms, but they must be taken within 48 hours of when symptoms start. That's why it's important to call your doctor as soon as you suspect you might have the flu.
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Is the flu shot as effective in adults age 65 and up? CDC data from last season show that the regular flu shot (not the high-dose version) reduced the risk of having to go to the doctor because of the flu by 32 percent (compared with 52 percent in those ages 20 to 64). Still, says Rehm, "it's the best protection you can get" if you're in this high-risk age group. Plus, there is some data that indicate that a flu shot can reduce the severity of the illness if an older person does get the flu.
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