This year's flu season is severe. So far, at least 26 children in the United States have died of influenza, and thousands of elderly people have been hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Health officials are urging people who become sick with the flu to consider using antiviral flu medications.
"Antiviral flu medicines are under-utilized. If you get them early, it could keep you out of the hospital. It might even save your life," CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said today (Jan. 9).
Treatment with antivirals is especially important this year because the vaccine prepared for the current flu season may not be as effective, Frieden said. Some of the viruses spreading this season are different than those in the current flu shot, and vaccination may not protect people as well as expected, according to the CDC.
The flu is now widespread in almost the entire United States, and it's too soon to know whether the peak of the season has passed, Frieden said.
"It appears that we are right in the middle of flu season this year, and so far it's shaping up to be a bad year for flu, especially for older people and people with underlying conditions," Frieden said. "We've seen a lot of flu, and there's more to come."
The flu viruses that are in circulation change each year, and the most common strain this season is influenza A (H3N2) virus. About two-thirds of the H3N2 is different from the H3N2 viruses that are included in the current flu shot, Frieden said.
Flu seasons in which H3N2 is the primary circulating strain tend to be more severe, especially in young children and older people, resulting in higher flu hospitalization and death rates, according to the CDC.
The CDC still recommends that people get their flu shots, because vaccination can still protect against other strains of the virus, and may reduce severe outcomes such as hospitalization and death. [ 6 Flu Vaccine Myths ]
People who become sick with the flu should speak with their doctors about receiving antiviral flu treatments, according to the CDC. These drugs can reduce the severity and length of illness, and cut down the risk of severe complications and hospitalization.
These drugs are particularly important for people at high risk of flu complications, such as children younger than 5, adults older than 65, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease, according to the CDC.
Treatment with antiviral drugs should begin as soon as possible after flu symptoms start, and people don't need to wait for a lab test result to confirm flu before beginning treatment, according to the CDC.