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If you've read the news lately, you're probably aware that this year's flu strain is the worst in nearly a decade. From October 1 to January 20, there have been 11,965 lab-confirmed flu-related hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). And flu season hasn't even peaked yet: The CDC says that will happen in the next week or so. If you're worried about your own chances of coming down with the flu, the best thing you can do is get the freakin' flu shot already. (Related: Can a Healthy Person Die from the Flu?)
ICYDK, influenza A (H3N2), one of the main strains of the flu this year, is causing most of the hospitalizations, deaths, and illnesses you're hearing about. This strain is so bad because of its uncanny ability to outsmart the human immune system faster than most other virus strains. "Influenza viruses are continuously mutating, but the H3N2 virus does it quicker than most vaccine makers can keep up with," says Julie Mangino, M.D., professor of infectious disease at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. The good news? This year's vaccine protects against this strain.
There are three other flu viruses going around, though: another strain of influenza A and two strains of influenza B. The vaccine protects against these too—and it's not too late to get it. "We are near the peak of the season, so getting one now would still be tremendously beneficial," Dr. Mangino says. But don't wait any longer—it takes your body some time to build immunity after the vaccine. "Flu season starts to wind down by late March, but we still see cases all the way through May," she says.
Already had the flu? You're not off the hook since you could still catch a different strain. (Yes, you can get the flu twice in one season.) Plus, "some people may think they have had the flu, but it's possible the symptoms actually were from the common cold, sinusitis, or some other respiratory illness. So the vaccine is definitely worth getting, especially if you haven't been officially diagnosed," says Dr. Mangino.
If you're experiencing flu-like symptoms (especially a fever, runny nose, cough, or body aches), don't leave the house. Elderly people, pregnant women, and those with heart or lung disease are at high risk for contracting influenza, Dr. Mangino says, and should be treated with antiviral drugs as soon as they start seeing symptoms.