As British health officials report the highest rates of flu infection in over a decade and begin to hoard what little vaccine remains for those most at risk, the U.S. is on track for a normal flu season. But even during a normal season, the flu kills, on average, 36,000 people in the U.S. each year.
"This flu season may be nothing out of the ordinary. But we must remember: ordinary is not fun," said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. "Influenza is the winter virus that can land you in bed, in hospital, or in the grave."
Flu activity typically ramps up nationwide in late December or early January, and peaks sometime in February.
"People kind of take influenza for granted," Schaffner said. The flu gets little attention unless it's causing serious illness or deaths -- especially in children, he said -- or it goes "pandemic" like the H1N1 strain.
But after the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which has been dubbed "mild" and "overhyped," some doctors fear the U.S. is tired of hearing health warnings.
"I think people have been more complacent this year," said Schaffner. "It's a paradox: The vaccine was available in abundance early. But when there's an abundance, many of us take a kind of ho-hum view about getting it."
With over 160 million doses manufactured and only a third of the U.S. population getting their flu shots, there's no shortage of vaccine, according to CDC spokesman Tom Skinner. This year's "trivalent" vaccine protects against the H3N2 strain -- the most common circulating virus right now -- as well as H1N1 and influenza B.
H1N1 is thought to be the major culprit in England's flu outbreak, which is reported to have caused 50 deaths so far this winter.
CDC's Skinner urges everyone to get a flu shot, but says it's especially important for people who are at high risk for complications of the flu, such as the very old and the very young. The vaccine's effectiveness ranges from 70 to 90 percent among healthy adults, according to the CDC.
Feeling Sick? Stay Home
But for those who choose not to get vaccinated, or who had a shot but still feel under the weather, the next best way to prevent the spread of flu is to stay home when sick.
"Influenza is devilish in the sense that among young, healthy people it can produce mild illness that for all intents and purposes can be mistaken for the common cold," Schaffner said.
People often feel obliged to go to work or school with mild flu symptoms, such as fever, sore throat, stuffy nose and dry cough -- a resolve that Schaffner calls "misguided enthusiasm."
"The virus loves that because it's help the spread from one person to another," he said.
Schaffner says people with flu symptoms should rest, drink lots of fluids and call their doctor -- particularly those who are older or suffer from chronic conditions like diabetes or diseases of the heart or lungs. While antiviral drugs can shorten the duration of infection, they're most effective when started early.
And although flu season is well underway, it's not too late to get a flu shot, Schaffner said.
"If you're thinking about vaccinated, run -- don't walk -- and go get your flu vaccine," Schaffner said.
The vaccine can take up to two weeks to boost immunity, but would still kick in before the February peak.
"Even if it's into February -- if the virus hasn't found you yet, protect yourself," Schaffner said.