A young boy rests in bed with a box of tissues and holds a tissue to his nose.

Flu season has arrived: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu activity is widespread in 24 states, and during the last week of December, 4.1 percent of doctor’s visits across the U.S. were for flulike illnesses.

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Those numbers aren’t as high as they were for that week last year, when the percentage of doctor’s visits for flulike illness had already jumped to 5.8 and the flu was widespread in 46 states.

Does that mean we’re in for a milder flu season than last year? “It’s a little bit too early to predict the intensity and magnitude of flu season for this year,” says Pedro Piedra, M.D., a professor in the departments of molecular virology and microbiology and pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

There are some hopeful signs, however. For one, the CDC’s estimates of flu vaccination coverage as of November 2018 were several points higher than they were at the same time in 2017—which means more people could be protected from flu this season.

Still, flu season is far from over and could worsen in the coming weeks, says Lynnette Brammer, M.P.H., an epidemiologist with the CDC’s influenza division. “There are still multiple weeks of flu season to go,” she says.

Here’s how this flu season is shaping up, and how to protect yourself and your family.

This Year's Flu Strain . . . so Far

This time last year, most people with flu were getting sick from the H3N2 strain, which was a major factor in the severity of the 2017 to 2018 flu season. This year, a different strain is making most people sick: H1N1, the same strain that caused the flu pandemic in 2009.

But because H1N1 has now been around for a decade, immunity against it has built up in the general public, says William Schaffner, M.D., professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. “It generally causes milder infections than H3N2,” he says.

Plus, in recent years, the flu vaccine did a better job of protecting against H1N1 strains than against H3N2.

What to know: While H3N2 is known for being especially dangerous for older adults (who are already at increased risk for severe illness from flu), H1N1 tends to be riskier for younger people, including children and young adults—who might not have been exposed to the strain enough to build up immunity to it, Schaffner says.

In fact, so far this year, the highest rate of hospitalizations for flu has been among children 4 years old and younger, which is unusual. Typically, adults 65 and up experience the highest rates of hospitalization from flu, according to the CDC

Note that although H1N1 has predominated overall, in some states the H3N2 strain of flu is more prevalent. According to the CDC, it’s the most common strain in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

How to Protect Yourself

Get a flu shot. “You should run, not walk,” to get your flu shot if you haven’t already, Schaffner says. It takes about two weeks for the shot to become fully protective. Be sure children get vaccinated, too. Every year, most kids who die from flu were unvaccinated. So far this year, 13 children have died from flu, and last year a total of 185 children died over the course of the flu season.

And embrace easy strategies such as diligent hand-washing, keeping away from people who are coughing and sneezing if possible, and staying home if you do get sick.

Consider antiviral medications. Most people who catch the flu get better on their own. But young children, pregnant women, older adults, and anyone with an underlying health condition such as heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, or a weakened immune system are at an increased risk for a serious complication, such as pneumonia or having to be hospitalized, if they get sick with flu.

If that includes you, call your doctor as soon as you notice flu symptoms—fever, chills, head and body aches, cough, or sore throat—and ask for a prescription for an antiviral medication such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu and generic) or the newly approved single dose antiviral baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza).

Antiviral medications can reduce the length of time you feel sick by about a day and can reduce your chances of having a severe complication from flu. But they need to be taken within 48 hours of the onset of your symptoms for the best results.


Interactive courtesy of the CDC​