The U.S. is experiencing one of the worst flu seasons ever. Have you had the flu? (Photo: Thinkstock)The flu has created a public health emergency in Boston, with 700 confirmed cases reported in the city since October 1, 2012 and 18 deaths in Massachusetts so far. Compare that to the 70 cases reported all of last season, and it's easy to see why people are starting to panic.
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There hasn't been this bad of an outbreak in Boston since 2009, which was the height of the H1N1/Swine Flu epidemic, Boston Public Health Commission executive director Dr. Barbara Ferrer told WBUR.
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"For us, there is a lot of urgency to this," Ferrer said. "We'd like there to be no more deaths. And one way to prevent further deaths from flu is to make sure that we do a better job getting the word out that people need to be vaccinated."
Massachusetts isn't the only state affected by the outbreak. "Reports of influenza-like-illness are nearing what have been peak levels during moderately severe seasons," Dr. Joe Bresee, chief of the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch in CDC's Influenza Division, said in a statement. "While we can't say for certain how severe this season will be, we can say that a lot of people are getting sick with influenza and we are getting reports of severe illness and hospitalizations."
According to the latest report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29 states have experienced high influenza-like illness activity this season, and 41 states have reported widespread cases of the flu, up from 31 states just a week earlier. (Wondering what flu rates are like where you live? Google's FluTrends map ranks U.S. flu activity as "intense" compared to the rest of the world.)
"Anyone who has not already been vaccinated should do so now," Bresee continued. "People who have severe influenza illness, or who are at high risk of serious influenza-related complications, should get treated with influenza antiviral medications if they get flu symptoms regardless of whether or not they got vaccinated."
"You don't need to wait for a positive laboratory test to start taking antivirals," he added.
But antivirals are harder to come by than usual. The makers of Tamiflu told Reuters this week that there's a shortage of the liquid version of the medication, which is usually used to treat children; Sanofi SA, the largest flu-vaccine provider in the United States, told Reuters that it had sold out of four of its six formulations of Fluzone, due to late-season demand. According to the CDC, 18 children have died from the flu so far this season. (The CDC does not track adult deaths from the flu, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told CNN that there's an average of 200,000 hospitalizations and as many as 49,000 deaths during a tough flu year. Several thousand people die even during "light" flu seasons, like last year was.)
Flu season usually starts in early September and continues through February, according to data from the CDC. The current vaccine was created to protect against Type A (H3N2) influenza, which is the most-prevalent strain this season, though the CDC has also received reports of H1N1 and influenza Type B viruses. But the shot doesn't prevent infection in everyone -- and it doesn't offer full protection right away.
"The flu shot is not bombproof and it does not protect against all strains of the flu, but it is by far the best thing you can do to prevent the flu," Dr. Travis Stork, an emergency room physician and co-host of "The Doctors," told Yahoo! Shine. It takes 10 to 14 days for the vaccine to offer maximum protection, and if you're exposed to the flu virus during that time you can still end up getting sick; the vaccine also becomes less effective as you get older or if you have other medical problems.
In order to minimize your chances of infection in general, "Beyond the flu shot and hand washing, avoid touching your eyes and nose when out and about because the virus can lurk everywhere from doorknobs to keyboards," Stork advises. "Staying well nourished, rested, and hydrated all helps. Keep your distance from someone who has flu-like symptoms when out in public because the virus can spread in the air when someone coughs." And if you can't keep fluids down or are having severe trouble breathing, head to a hospital instead of trying to cure yourself at home.
Also on Shine:
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