Though influenza activity typically peaks by February’s end, the flu season isn’t over – and a harsher strain called H3N2 has increased in circulation both nationwide and in Kentucky, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Medical Center at Bowling Green, Caverna, Scottsville and Franklin has confirmed 715 individual influenza cases since flu season began – with the highest number in February, according to Glynda Chu, spokeswoman for The Medical Center.
“Some people may think flu season is over, but it is not,” Chu said in an email. “Many people in our area are suffering with the flu and we encourage everyone to please get a flu shot.”
TriStar Greenview Regional Hospital had 328 confirmed cases of influenza from Jan. 1 through Feb. 27 – and that doesn’t include the number of people being treated who didn’t first get tested, according to Andria McGregor, the marketing and communications specialist at Greenview.
“As always, we suggest people take precautions and wash their hands” throughout the flu season, McGregor said.
From October through Feb. 23, the Barren River region had a total of 2,174 laboratory-confirmed cases, according to Layne Blackwell, the regional epidemiologist at the Barren River District Health Department.
There are four types of influenza viruses: A, B, C and D. Influenza A accounts for the majority of cases and is the only strain that is divided into subtypes, which are most commonly H1N1 and H3N2.
The health department does not track the subtypes of influenza A. “As for H1N1 and H3N2, the majority of our labs don’t subtype or they don’t subtype out that far to know what type of influenza A is circulating in our region,” Blackwell said in an email.
The flu virus mutates rapidly through small genetic changes, which is why it’s difficult to formulate an exact vaccine prior to each season – and why subtype activity changes throughout each season.
Although the H1N1 virus has predominated this flu season, the H3N2 virus accounted for nearly half of influenza A detected nationally through the week of Feb. 16. In Kentucky and the Southeast, the H3N2 virus is considered predominant.
The increase in H3N2 deserves caution because the subtype is considered more severe due to its association with a greater number of hospitalizations and deaths in children and the elderly, according to the CDC.
This season has been considered milder relative to the 2018-19 flu season. At Greenview, there were 382 cases during the Jan. 1 through Feb. 27 period last year versus the 328 this year.
“We’re showing that it’s tracking down this year,” McGregor said.
But influenza-like illness is still considered high in 30 states, and the flu season generally lasts through May.
This season, there have been 41 flu-related pediatric deaths. Last season, there were a total of 185 pediatric deaths. From October through mid-February, the CDC estimates that there have been between 13,600 to 22,300 flu-related deaths, and that more than 20 million people have gotten sick.
Individuals at risk for flu-related complications – such as pneumonia, heart inflammation and multi-organ failure – include people over the age of 65, young children, pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions like heart disease and asthma, according to the CDC.
To protect yourself or your family, the annual flu vaccine is the best method of protection. Even late in the season, the CDC recommends the vaccine. Other methods of protection include frequent hand washing, especially before eating or touching the face, and avoiding touching public surfaces.
Both the flu and the common cold cause similar symptoms, such as a sore throat, stuffy nose and sneezing. It can be difficult to differentiate between the two, but the flu virus also commonly causes chills and a headache with an abrupt onset of symptoms, according to the CDC.
Though it’s common practice to diagnose the flu based on symptoms, tests conducted within the first few days of illness are the only way to confirm.
If you suspect the illness, remain home from work, school or errands to prevent further spread, and consider getting tested at the hospital and starting antiviral medications. But mostly, the best treatment is plenty of rest and drinking lots of water.