Massachusetts was one of six states that by mid-December reported “widespread” influenza activity, which is the highest level of flu activity designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But cases of influenza-like illness don’t seem to be above normal this year, according to Paul Sax, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“We always see some region-to-region variation, but typically they’ll catch up with each other,” said Larry Madoff, director of the Division of Epidemiology and Immunization at the state’s Department of Public Health. “We’re tracking pretty much on par with other seasons.”
The beginning of the holiday season tends to be the start of flu season, state health officials said, adding that it’s not too late to get a flu shot.
“The flu season is underway,” said Madoff. “We are seeing the flu, and we expect it to get worse, as it usually does.”
The contagious respiratory illness, known for its debilitating body aches, fever, and cold symptoms, is more likely to affect people with weakened immune systems, such as young children and the elderly, according to the CDC.
Another common wintertime illness is a respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, infection, which, until recently, was often mistaken for the flu. Known for causing congestion, coughing, and fever, RSV affects mainly infants and can lead to more severe infections, like bronchiolitis, according to the CDC.
There is no vaccine or effective treatment yet for RSV, but scientists are working on developing one, Sax said.
The strain of flu virus that circulates varies from year to year. The predominant strain this year seems to be H1N1, and the vaccine is expected to be effective, Madoff said.
Public health officials are urging everyone to get vaccinated in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus, which has already killed seven children in the United States this season, according to the CDC.
“The flu vaccine is much safer than getting the flu,” Madoff said. “Not only do you prevent flu with the vaccine, but if you get the flu virus, you don’t spread it to other people.”
Many people don’t get vaccinated because they think the vaccine can give them the flu, but that’s not the case, Sax said. The vaccine is made with an inactivated strain of the virus, so the worst it can do is produce a bit of soreness in your upper arm.
It’s not too late to get the vaccine. There are no flu vaccine shortages this year as there are for the shingles vaccine, and flu season doesn’t usually peak until late January or early February, Madoff said.