Deadly season

What to know about this year’s influenza outbreak

About this article:
It’s an abridged version of a story originally published by California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. Learn more at

Aja C. Holmes planned to go to work last week, but her flu symptoms—a cough, fever and severe body aches that worsened overnight—had other ideas.

“It felt like somebody took a bat and beat my body up and down,” said Holmes, 39, who works as a residential life director at Sacramento State University. “I couldn’t get out of bed.”

The nation is having a hefty flu season. The infectious disease is widespread in 46 states, including California, according to the latest reports to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As of mid-December, at least 106 people had died as a result. States across the country are reporting higher-than-average flu-related hospitalizations and emergency room visits.

In California, flu struck surprisingly early and hard this season. The state’s warmer temperatures typically mean people are less confined indoors and result in a later flu season compared with other regions. Health experts aren’t sure why this season is different.

At least 27 Californians younger than 65 had died as of Jan. 5, seven of them during the week before Christmas.

“This appears [to be] one of the worst seasons we’ve had in the last 10 years,” said Dr. Gil Chavez, state epidemiologist at the California Department of Public Health (CDPH).

The agency said among the 27 people who have died, most were adults, and 70 percent were not vaccinated. Typically, about 40 percent to 50 percent of Californians get a flu shot in a given year, said Dr. James Watt, chief of the Division of Communicable Disease Control at CDPH. “We’d love to see those numbers be higher.”

Dr. Randy Bergen, a pediatrician, is leading Kaiser Permanente-Northern California’s anti-flu effort.

“We’re seeing the worst of it right now,” he said. “We’re really in historic territory, and I just don’t know when it’s going to stop.” (Kaiser Health News, which produces California Healthline, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

Here are five things you should know about this flu season:

1. It’s shaping up to be one of the worst in recent years.

The H3N2 influenza A subtype that appears to be most prevalent is particularly nasty, with more severe symptoms including fever and body aches. Australia, which U.S. public health officials follow closely in their flu forecasting in part because their winter is our summer, reported a record-high number of confirmed flu cases in 2017. Another influenza B virus subtype also is circulating.

Flu season in the U.S. typically starts in October and ends in May, peaking between December and February.

2. This season’s flu vaccine is likely to be less effective than in previous years.

U.S. flu experts say they won’t fully know how effective this season’s vaccine is until the end of the season. Australia’s experience suggests effectiveness was only about 10 percent. In the U.S., it is 40 percent to 60 percent effective in an average season. Vaccines are less protective if strains are different than predicted and unexpected mutations occur.

3. You should get the flu shot in any case.

Even if it is not a good match to the virus now circulating, the vaccine helps to ease the severity and duration of symptoms if you come down with the flu. Young children are considered among the most vulnerable to complications from the disease, and a shot can significantly reduce a child’s chances of dying. In the U.S., officials recommend flu shots for everyone older than 6 months. High-dose vaccines are recommended for elderly people, who also are exceptionally vulnerable to illness, hospitalization and death related to the flu, according to the CDC.

“Some protection is better than no protection,” Bergen said, “but it’s certainly disappointing to have a vaccine that’s just not as effective as we’d like it to be.

Shots may still be available from your doctor or local health clinic, as well as at some chain drugstores. Check the Vaccine Finder website ( for a location near you.

4. Basic precautions may spare you and your family from days in bed.

As much as possible, avoid people who are sick. Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes.

Masks aren’t particularly effective in keeping you from catching the flu, although they may help keep sick people who wear them from spreading their germs further.

If you are sick, cover your cough and stay home from work if you can, Bergen said. Remaining hydrated, eating nutritious foods and exercising can also help strengthen your immune system.

Because elderly people are so vulnerable to the flu, some nursing homes and assisted living facilities may limit visitors and resident activities, depending on the level of illness.

5. Don’t mistake flu symptoms for those of a common cold.

The hallmarks of flu are fever and body aches that accompany cough and congestion, Bergen said.

Although most people don’t need medical care for the flu, check in with a doctor if you feel as if you’re having trouble breathing, or if your fever can’t be controlled with medication like Tylenol. It’s even more important for patients to see a doctor if they have a chronic medical condition like diabetes or heart disease, are pregnant, or are very young or elderly.

Pauline Bartolone contributed to this report.