The flu really is worse this year.
But just how bad it's going to get remains to be seen since most local hospitals haven't seen the peak of flu-stricken patients yet.
The Northern Illinois Public Health Consortium, made up of health departments from nine counties and three cities, is warning residents that "seasonal flu activity has increased sharply in recent weeks." Health officials are concerned the outbreak could be as significant as it was during the 2014-2015 cycle, which the consortium called the "most severe in recent years."
Conditions are nearly perfect for the flu to do the most damage. The long cold snap and the holidays kept everyone gathered inside together, and the flu that's going around is a strain that's less vulnerable to the vaccine, health care professionals warned.
Dr. Guy Kochvar, an epidemiologist at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, explains why this flu season is particularly rough and what you can do about it.
Q: Is it really that bad this season?
A: We are seeing a relatively high attack rate, but it's still relatively early in the season and we don't know how high the peak is going to be in terms of influenza activity. It is in line with what we saw in 2015, which was also a high attack year.
Q: So the flu vaccine didn't work?
A: I wouldn't say the vaccine is not working. However, in a typical year the vaccine reduces the risk of flu illness by 60 percent with the H1N1 strain, but it tends to be less effective, in general, in years where we see the virus as H3N2, which is what we're seeing this year. That strain only reduces the risk by about 30 percent with the vaccine and our experience in the northern hemisphere tends to be what the experience in the southern hemisphere was like during their winter, and they had a higher attack rate.
Q: Does the cold weather worsen the effects of the flu?
A: It plays a role in keeping people inside and in close gatherings, which increases someone's risk of contracting the virus.
Q: Who's most at risk?
A: People that are at the greatest risk are those with chronic health conditions, like heart or lung ailments or neurological conditions. The elderly and very young are also at a greater risk, as well as pregnant women. Typically the flu symptoms of fever, headache, muscle aches, dry cough, runny nose and all that will last for two to five days, and the fever alone can last two to three days. The worst part of the illness is before the fever breaks, and the severity depends on someone's age.
Q. Is it too late for someone who hasn't had the vaccine?
A: If you haven't gotten the vaccine, it's still helpful even though the effectiveness may be lower than in other years. Getting the vaccine can still decrease the severity of the disease, which could mean the difference between getting the flu and staying in bed or getting the flu and having to be hospitalized.