It’s on: Flu season hits and with it, advice to get shots

Despite a protracted season of summer-like heat, cooler temperatures have finally arrived and with them, flu season.

Officially, flu season in Hays County began Oct. 1, and already, more than a dozen people have tested positive, according to the county’s epidemiologist Eric Schneider.

“We’ve had 14 to 16 positive cases in the past two weeks,” Schneider said, adding that “it’s not really anything out of the ordinary for this time of year.

Schneider and Lara Anton of the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) noted that predictions about how bad this season might be are hard to make because each flu season is different.

“Last season we saw high levels of flu activity for longer than usual,” Anton said. “The season before, activity was higher than it had been in a decade – you just don’t know what is going to happen.”

There are actually two vaccines on the market this year and both protect against the recently re-emerging H3N2 influenza variant, which was first identified in pigs in 2011 and in humans a year after that, Schneider said.

The variant has been identified as “one of the strains they’re predicting will be potentially harmful to the public,” Schneider said. “It can be potentially fatal to children, older adults and people with suppressed immune systems.”

Anton was more specific, saying that influenza of any strain presents a greater risk for “adults over 50, children under 5, pregnant woman and anyone who is a caregiver for someone in those categories.”

Both stressed the importance of getting a flu shot, even though that is not guaranteed to prevent anyone from catching the disease. “If you do end up getting the flu after getting your shot, it will shorten the duration of the illness and you are less likely to have a severe complication,” Anton said.

According to the DSHS, most people who get sick with the flu can recover in about two weeks. However, some may develop complications that can prove life-threatening. Complications “can result in hospitalization and sometimes death. Pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections and ear infections are examples of flu-related complications,” the agency says. “Flu also can make chronic health problems worse” including asthma, congestive heart failure and some neurologic conditions.

Anton also stressed that it “takes about two weeks for your body to build up antibodies,” so the earlier someone is immunized the sooner they will be protected.

Tammy Gray, pharmacist and owner of Buda Pharmacy, said she’s seeing people come in for their shots earlier than previous seasons. She said that while she’s only seen one person who had tested positive so far this year, “the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) seems to be predicting an earlier season for this part of the U.S.”

“We’re definitely seeing a higher demand,” Gray said, adding that in a more typical year, people start coming in for flu shots later in October. Flu season in Central Texas runs through much of the spring and Gray said some people put off getting immunized until late in the season – January or February. “The vaccine is actually good through June.”

Schneider said that unlike last year, the county has not scheduled any free flu shot clinics. “Due to our lack of resources at the Hays County Health Department, we will not be able to offer flu shots to the public. However, flu shots are available at all local pharmacies or from any health care provider.”

The shots can cost from around $20 to around $40, and are covered by most insurance plans.

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