It's official: The United States is experiencing a flu epidemic, the worst in several years. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 20 children have died of flu so far this winter — and that is likely a conservative count. The agency does not announce the number of adult flu-related deaths until the end of the season, but it is presumably higher than usual: 47 states have reported significant public-health impact from the first wave of flu. (The CDC defines flu-related deaths as those in which the flu infection was a contributing factor, if not the primary cause.)
In states like New York and cities like Boston, officials have taken steps to declare public-health emergencies, freeing up reserves of vaccines and loosening rules to allow pharmacists to administer shots to children, who, along with the elderly, are at highest risk. (Learn more about the latest outbreak from Google's interactive Flu Trends map.)
(MORE: Yes, You Really Do Need a Flu Shot)
For most people who come down with the flu, it may make you extremely sick over the course of a week or more and then subside. But for young children and people over 50, especially those with other health conditions, the flu can be far more serious, even life-threatening.
As we age, our immune systems weaken, making us more vulnerable to airborne illnesses, like the flu. According to the CDC, 90 percent of flu-related hospitalizations and 50 percent of flu-related deaths occur among people who are 65 or older.
Of course, the surest thing you can do to keep the virus at bay is to get the vaccine through your health-care provider or at your workplace or local pharmacy. "Getting the influenza vaccine once a year is the best defense, especially for people over 50," says Dr. Carolyn Bridges, associate director of adult immunizations at the CDC.
Health officials had recommended that people get the flu shot or nasal spray by late October or November, before sick season kicked into high gear, because it normally takes around two weeks for the vaccine to become effective. But it's not too late to get a flu shot even now, although you might have to search a bit for providers that still have shots available. "It may take two or three calls, but it is well worth it," Bridges says.
You can check for availability online by using the HealthMap Vaccine Finder. Most insurance plans cover the flu shot without copay; Medicare Part B fully covers the vaccination.
The flu shot may be the most effective defense, but it's not foolproof. In a preliminary CDC study, experts rate this season's edition as 62 percent effective in combating current strains, which is within the typical annual range of 50 to 70 percent effectiveness. Bridges also advises everyone to make sure they're current on other shots, including the vaccine that prevents pneumonia. This applies especially to people who have compromised immune systems, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
You cannot get the flu from the flu vaccine, but some people do experience short-term side effects, such as soreness, redness or swelling at the spot of the injection; low-grade fever; or aches, none of which should persist beyond one or two days. On rare occasions, people can experience a severe allergic reaction to the flu shot. People who have ever had such a reaction or who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs should talk to a doctor before getting the shot, and anyone who has ever had Guillain–Barré Syndrome should not get the shot without consulting a doctor. If you have a cold or fever, don't get the flu shot until you've fully recovered.