Bad Flu Season Continues to Take Toll, Especially Among the Young and Old

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FRIDAY, Jan. 9, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- The United States is in the grip of a particularly nasty flu season, federal health officials said Friday, due -- in large part -- to a strain of the virus that's hitting the elderly and children particularly hard.

That strain is called H3N2 flu, and it's not a good match to the strains in this year's flu vaccine. As a result, thousands of people are being hospitalized and 26 children have died from flu so far, Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a midday press briefing.

"Years that have H3N2 predominance tend to have more hospitalizations and more deaths," he said.

Frieden said hospitalization rates for flu have risen to 92 per 100,000 people this season, primarily due to the H3N2 strain. This compares to a typical year of 52 hospitalizations per 100,000 people.

In an average year, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized for flu and the number of children's deaths varies from as few as 30 to as many as 170 or more, CDC officials said.

Although it's the middle of the flu season, the CDC continues to recommend that everyone 6 months and older get a flu shot, Frieden said. The reason: there's more than one type of flu strain circulating, and the vaccine protects against at least three strains of circulating virus.

Frieden also stressed the benefit of antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (inhaled zanamivir), especially this year.

"Treatment with antiviral flu drugs is even more important this year," he said. "These drug work, but they aren't being used nearly enough. They can reduce symptoms, shorten the duration of illness and prevent serious complications. They could even save your life."

To be most effective these drugs need to be given early, at the first sign of symptoms, Frieden said.

Common flu symptoms can include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, muscle aches and fatigue. Vomiting and diarrhea are seen more often in children with flu than adults.

People at risk of flu-related complications include young children, especially those younger than 2 years; people over 65; pregnant women; and people with chronic health problems, such as asthma, heart disease and weakened immune systems, according to the CDC.

Most people recover from the flu anywhere from a few days to a bit less than two weeks. But others suffer life-threatening complications, such as pneumonia, according to the CDC.

Warning signs of possible complications include a cough that disrupts sleep, a fever that doesn't come down with treatment, or increased shortness of breath, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Flu seasons are unpredictable, according to the CDC. Each year, on average, 5 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu. During a 30-year period, from 1976 to 2006, estimates of flu-related deaths in the United States ranged from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people, the agency said.

More information

To learn more about the flu, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.