This year's flu season is turning out to be a doozy. People are succumbing to the illness in record numbers—in some areas, at levels that rival the notorious 2009 swine flu epidemic.
And yet, things can, and are, getting worse. Not only are seasonal flu outbreaks plaguing the country, but doctors are also seeing outbreaks of norovirus (technically "winter vomiting disease"), a form of stomach flu for which there is no vaccine, as well as whooping cough, which can cause hacking so forceful it can break ribs!
But don't let panic or misinformation keep you from avoiding the flu. Here's what you should be worried about, and what may not affect your day-to-day life.
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What you need to be worried about: A seriously disgusting flu. It's not just hype; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 22,048 flu cases have been reported in the last three months, compared to just 849 cases during the same time period last year. So your chances of getting it are really high.
What you shouldn't be worried about: Your flu shot not protecting you. People have dozens of excuses for not getting one, ranging from "It doesn't work," to "It gives you the flu." To find out why those aren't true, check out these 4 Flu Shot Myths—Debunked! from Men's Health.
It is true that, this year, doctors are reporting that even people who got the flu shot are getting sick—but here's why that shouldn't stop you from getting vaccinated. "The flu vaccine is very effective in younger healthy people with good, robust immune systems," says William Schaffner, MD, infectious disease specialist with the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, but he adds, it's less effective in older people and people with underlying illnesses. "It's an unfortunate paradox, that it works least well in those whom we wish to protect the most." All the more reason you should get the shot: Getting vaccinated keeps you from getting sick and from becoming a carrier of the virus and thus making others sick.
What you need to be worried about: Another seriously disgusting form of stomach flu that can make you miserable with projectile vomiting and severe diarrhea. It's spread, Dr. Schaffner says, because the projectile vomit can aerosolize and contaminate hard surfaces like desks and chairs. Like the seasonal flu, norovirus has periodic resurgences, and we're in one of those right now, he adds. Europe and Canada have been hit particularly hard in the past few months, and the disease is spreading in the U.S.
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What you shouldn't be worried about: Catching that blockbuster on opening night. Because the strain of norovirus going around is so virulent—and because there's no vaccine that can protect you from it—the only way to protect yourself is to avoid crowds, Dr. Schaffner says. "This may not be the best time for you to go shopping at the mall." Or to see that hot new movie at a crowded movie theater. If that's not always doable, here are our 10 Tips for Avoiding the Flu in Public Places.
What you need to be worried about: Getting a cough so bad it can break your ribs. Whooping cough, or pertussis, is often called the 100-day cough because of its persistence, and many adults are left vulnerable because the pertussis vaccine you get as a child wears off over time. "Some people can cough so much, they can't breathe in, and that can trigger fainting episodes that result in broken arms and possibly concussions," Dr. Schaffner says. In January, the CDC announced that whooping cough rates are the highest they've been in 60 years.
What you shouldn't be worried about: A nationwide epidemic. The whooping cough outbreak seems to be isolated to certain states, Dr. Schaffner says, and it's not clear why one state suffers while its neighbors remain relatively disease free. Wisconsin currently is the hardest-hit state, with whooping cough rates nine times the national average; check to see how your state ranks here. Who should be worried, regardless, though? New parents. The disease rarely kills adults, but it's highly fatal in babies. Infants up to 2 months aren't able to get vaccinated, and children don't receive all five courses of the vaccine until they're 6 years old. Dr. Schaffner recommends that anyone in a family with a new baby—moms, dads, grandparents, aunts, and uncles—get a booster shot to prevent exposing an unvaccinated baby to the disease.