Don't let the warm weather this fall fool you — flu season is arriving right on time. In fact, it arrived a bit earlier than usual this year.
"While flu season can happen anytime between October and April, it seemed to start earlier in Ontario this year," says Dr. Andy Simor, head, department of microbiology and infectious diseases consultant at Sunnybrook.
With that in mind, here are five things you should know about the 2017-2018 flu season:
1. Australia was hit hard by the flu this year
Each year, experts look to Australia's flu season (which occurs during their winter, between May and October) to get an idea of what our flu season might be like. While the influenza (flu) vaccine match was good this year in Australia, the country saw a much higher number of cases than usual, resulting in an increased number of hospitalizations and deaths.
"If the experience of southern hemisphere is predictive, we're in for a more difficult flu season than usual," says Dr. Simor.
2. There's more than one flu strain circulating
There are usually several strains of the flu circulating each year. As a result, the flu vaccine is trivalent, which means the shot protects against three different strains. This year, those three strains are influenza A (H1N1), H3N2 (the prevalent strain that was seen in Australia) and B.
The World Health Organization (WHO) determines which strains to include in the flu vaccine every year. With input from experts around the world, the WHO tries to predict which virus will be the most dominant. As a result, the flu shot protects against different strains every year. So, even if you got a flu shot last year, it won't be effective against the flu strains circulating this year.
3. Getting the flu shot is safe and effective
The flu vaccine is safe and effective, particularly in preventing serious complications that may occur from the flu (such as pneumonia, which can become deadly for some people).
"The flu can cause severe illness, especially in the very young and the elderly. The most effective thing we can do to protect ourselves and others against the flu is to get the vaccine," says Dr. Simor.
4. You can't get sick from the flu vaccine
"The flu vaccine is made entirely of killed virus and cannot cause you to get sick," says Dr. Simor. Studies have found that symptoms occur just as often in people who get a placebo shot versus the real thing. However, you can definitely still get a sore arm!
It's important to note, though, that it takes two weeks for the flu shot to work. "If you get sick in those first two weeks, it's because you had already been infected or you weren't yet fully protected," says Dr. Simor.
5. Clean your hands to prevent the flu from spreading
While the flu vaccine is safe and effective, it's not perfect, and it doesn't provide a 100 per cent guarantee that you'll avoid getting sick.
This is why it's so important to take steps to prevent the spread of the flu, like cleaning your hands often. If you do get sick, don't go to work and try to stay away from crowded places so you don't pass the flu virus on to someone else.
"If you get the flu, you'll feel sick for five to seven days, and you're contagious for the first four days. It's important to limit your contact with other people during that time," says Dr. Simor.
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