Why is this such a lousy year for the flu across Canada?

The flu is caused by a highly contagious virus, spread between people by droplets when they sneeze, cough or talk. But there are different strains, with each affecting us differently. This year, the dominant one is H3N2. That’s bad news — more people tend to get that strain, the flu shot tends to be less effective against it, and it’s harder on the elderly. As the season goes on, the virus can also mutate, and there’s often a second wave of influenza B — a completely different strain — at the end of the season, in February or March.

How many people will get sick?

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s latest FluWatch report, nearly 2,000 cases of the flu were reported across the country in the last week of December. There have been more than 6,000 reported cases since this season began in the late fall. “Like other H3 seasons, there’s probably going to be more activity,” explains Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of the Public Health Agency of Canada. Rates are still going up every week. Most of us will feel ill for a week, but for many people — especially those who are vulnerable, like the elderly or kids under two — the flu could turn into a serious illness.

How good is this year’s flu shot?

This year’s flu shot matches the strain that’s going around. That’s the good news. The bad news: “typically with H3N2, the vaccine’s effectiveness is lower than it is with other kinds of influenza,” says Danuta Skowronski, epidemiology lead for the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and one of the researchers who developed the test we use to measure the flu shot’s effectiveness. “On average, we expect an effectiveness of less than 40 percent.” It’s generally also about 50 percent to 60 percent effective against influenza B.

Despite that, the flu shot is still the most effective way to protect yourself, says Ian Gemmill, medical officer of health for the Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington area of Ontario. It takes a couple of weeks to work, since your body takes time to create antibodies in response. If you still haven’t gotten the shot, Gemmill advises to “get the vaccine — but hurry up!” And even if the shot doesn’t prevent you from getting sick in the first place, it can still make for less-severe symptoms and a faster recovery.

Who’s most at risk from the flu?

Flu shots are particularly important for those at a higher risk for complications. That includes children under five years old, pregnant women, indigenous populations and people with underlying medical conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes. The elderly are also vulnerable, especially to H3N2, says Gemmill. “H3N2 is the nastiest of all the flu viruses that we deal with. We can expect to see elderly people sick, hospitalized and some of them dying,” he says. According to Public Health’s FluWatch report, there were 71 reported flu outbreaks in the last week of December, most in long-term care facilities across the country.

Every year, about 12,200 Canadians are hospitalized with the flu, mostly people from those higher risk groups, and about 3,500 people will die from it.

What can I do to protect myself from my sneezing coworkers?

The flu is very contagious — that’s why rates usually peak around December, when a lot of us are socializing. (If you’re going to catch the flu from someone, it takes about two days after exposure for you to start having symptoms, so you can stop worrying about Aunt Jean from the holiday party.) And people can spread the virus up to five days before they have symptoms.

To protect yourself, you don’t have to hide out at home. Instead, focus on hygiene. “Thorough and frequent handwashing is key, because influenza is spread by droplets between people, on the hands and on contaminated surfaces,” says Tam. “And if someone in your household is sick, clean surfaces, and dispose of those contaminated Kleenex.”

What’s the difference between the flu and a cold?

You know you’ve caught the flu if you’re achy, coughing, and you have a fever. Headaches, chills, runny nose, sore throat, being extremely tired and losing your appetite are other common symptoms. Kids also often vomit, have diarrhea, and are nauseous.

“What distinguishes the flu is the feeling of general achiness,” says Skowronski. “Everything aches, your joints, your fingertips ache. And you’re extremely tired: You really have to drag yourself out of bed. For other viruses you tend to be able to push on with your day.”

What do I do if I have the flu?

People who are otherwise healthy can take over-the-counter medicines to reduce fevers and aches and pains. Rest up, says Tam, and drink lots of fluids, like soup. In about seven to 10 days, you should feel better. If you feel sick after that, or start to suddenly feel worse, see your doctor. High-risk people should also get medical care early if they think they have the flu, because their doctors might chose to give them Tamiflu, an antiviral that reduces flu symptoms — but it has to be given within 48 hours of getting sick. And of course, stay home if you can. As Skowronski says: “Fever and cough, take the week off!’”

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