Flu shot isn't an exact match, but you should still get it

Get ready for the flu's second wave.

This year's flu shot isn't an exact match for the flu strain that's been circulating most widely, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't get it, health experts say.

"The influenza vaccine protects against various strains, three or four, depending on which vaccine you receive," said Dr. William Schaffner, medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

Early 2019-2020 flu activity was primarily driven by influenza B/Victoria viruses, which the vaccine is not a great match for. Now, that flu activity is changing. "We’re now experiencing an increase in A/H1N1," Schaffner said.

"It looks like we’re having a second wave. The vaccine is exactly on target against this strain."

In general, influenza B is more common in children, while influenza A, also known as H1N1, is more commonly seen in older adults, according to Dr. Jessica Grayson, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

So far, 6,600 people have died and 120,000 people have been hospitalized during the 2019-2020 flu season, according to preliminary estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Friday.

Of those deaths, 39 were children, a group that's particularly vulnerable to the flu and its complications.

During recent past flu seasons, deaths among children have ranged from 37 to 187 fatalities.

"The flu season began early this year and took off aggressively," said Schaffner.

"It began prominently in the southeastern states but quickly spread," he said. "So far, there is no sign that the momentum of the annual epidemic is slowing."

The highest flu activity is decreasing and is now clustered in 34 states, including much of the southern and western parts of the country as well as New York City and Puerto Rico.

In total, the CDC estimates that 13 million people have gotten the flu so far this season.

It remains too early to say how severe this flu season will be or how long it will last.

Typical symptoms of the flu include fever, sore throat, aches, chills and sweats and fatigue, according to the Mayo Clinic.

While the flu might seem like a relatively minor disease because it's so common, complications from the flu, which can include pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma flare-ups and heart problems, can be deadly.

People with weakened immune systems, adults older than age 65 and babies are all at a higher risk of contracting the flu

If you experience flu symptoms, Grayson recommends staying home from work and other public places to avoid transmitting the disease to others. Wash your hands often and avoid others who are ill.

"Before going to your doctor's office, call," Grayson said. "They may have a different waiting room for those who are sick."

How to protect yourself -- and your child -- from the flu

Getting vaccinated against the flu is the best way to protect against the disease, experts say.

Receiving the vaccine earlier in the season is preferable, because the vaccine takes about two weeks to kick in, but even partial protection against the flu can ward off the worst symptoms and make the duration of the disease less severe.

"It's not too late to get vaccinated," Grayson stressed. "We still have a lot of flu season left."

Guidelines for children are slightly different than they are for adults, according to the CDC. The agency is now recommending that some children between the ages of 6 months and 8 years old get two doses of the vaccine, spaced at least four weeks apart. The child's doctor or health care provider should determine whether he or she needs a second dose for the best possible protection against the flu.

Despite those recommendations, however, many Americans mistakenly believe that the flu vaccine doesn't work or has side effects. (Apart from soreness at the needle's injection site, there are no notable side effects linked to the flu vaccine.)

Partly because of these misconceptions, only half of Americans reported that they planned to get the flu vaccine this year, according to a survey conducted by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases this summer.

In addition to the flu vaccine, there are four Food and Drug Administration-approved antiviral drugs that the CDC recommends for treating the flu.