This year’s flu season may already be nearing its peak, but health officials are reminding people it’s not too late to get vaccinated.
Influenza has had a “minimal” effect in New Hampshire so far this season, according to data from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services, with eight cases confirmed since September.
But this doesn’t mean the virus isn’t looming in the state, according to Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state epidemiologist.
“We know the virus is circulating,” he said. “If people haven’t gotten vaccinated, now is the time, because it takes a couple of weeks for the body to build up against the flu.”
The flu — which most commonly circulates in late fall through early spring, and peaks between December and February — is a respiratory infection. It’s spread when people come in close contact with people who have the virus and inhale airborne droplets or touch contaminated surfaces.
The common cold is also a respiratory infection, making it difficult for some people to tell the two illnesses apart, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But there are some key differences.
The flu begins suddenly, accompanied by achy muscles, a severe cough and significant fatigue. The onset of cold symptoms is much more gradual, with a mild cough, sore muscles and tiredness. The cold also typically includes a stuffy and runny nose, while the flu rarely does.
And though people often shrug the flu off as no big deal, it can be fatal.
In 2018, New Hampshire tallied 64 flu deaths among adults, according to data from the state’s Bureau of Infectious Disease Control.
Among them was Amanda Franks, a New Ipswich resident and Keene High alumna who died from flu complications in January of that year at the age of 38. Family members described her as otherwise healthy.
Nationally, the CDC estimates 61,200 people died from the flu last season.
Giving immunity a shot in the arm
Chan, the state epidemiologist, said the flu vaccine is the best prevention method.
The CDC recommends anyone over the age of 6 months get vaccinated by the end of October, but says immunization is still beneficial once the season is in full swing.
If someone does get the flu shortly after getting the vaccine, it’s just coincidence, and the vaccine will limit the severity and length of the disease, Chan said.
The vaccine doesn’t contain a live virus and, therefore, can’t give someone the flu, according to the CDC’s website.
“We know [the vaccine] can be life-saving and it can help prevent a more serious illness for those who do get influenza,” Chan said.
Vaccination can also reduce the flu risk within communities, according to Chan. This concept is known as herd immunity.
“When someone gets vaccinated, they protect not only themselves, but other members of the community who aren’t vaccinated, either by choice or because they’re too young or have a medical reason,” he said.
The flu vaccine changes slightly each year to keep up with virus strains that are constantly evolving. The CDC recommends one of three different injectable vaccines or the nasal vaccination.
If someone has already been sick with the flu this season — without being immunized — a vaccine is still recommended. The vaccine helps protect against three to four different virus strains, so it would still offer protection against strains the person hasn’t yet contracted, the CDC states on its website.
Chan added those who are vaccinated should still practice other precautions, such as washing hands frequently and staying home from school or work when feeling ill.
Vaccines are given at most pharmacies on a walk-in basis and doctors’ offices by appointment.
For additional questions, people can contact Cheshire Medical Center’s flu hotline at 354-5405.