H1N1 is back. Here’s what you need to know.

From CDC

This is H1N1. Micrograph from the CDC.

How bad is the flu this year?

Well, it’s H1N1. Remember that from 2009? I’ve written before about my pilgrimage to the first H1N1 vaccine clinic in my area and how President Obama rolled up his sleeve for the camera. That year, H1N1 caught everyone by surprise. Starting the following year it was rolled into in the regular flu shot. Which is a good thing because H1N1 has returned as the dominant strain this year.

Which, in turn, means trouble. This year, most flu hospitalizations are in young and middle-aged adults, which is drastically different than in typical years, where adults over 65 are most at risk. That means that young(ish) healthy(ish) people who usually don’t worry about the flu, are now the ones who should worry. Yes, people die from the flu – tens of thousands in the US per year, although the number varies by a lot.

Can I still safely get the flu shot?

Probably. It’s recommended for everyone 6 months and older. If you’re curious, the CDC has a great rundown of the different flu shots, how they work, and how safe and effective they are for various groups of people. Benefits outweigh risks for almost everyone.

Pregnant women who get the shot are even providing protection to their newborns, and yes, the shot is safe during pregnancy. (What’s not safe during pregnancy? Getting the flu. Especially with H1N1, pregnant women are at more risk of complications, which can include miscarriage, as in this woman’s tale.)

Depending on the vaccine and the year, the flu shot prevents the flu 70-90% of the time according to the World Health Organization, or 60% according to the US CDC. That’s a lot less than a hundred percent, sure, but it’s also a lot more than zero. Among the elderly, getting a flu shot reduces flu deaths by 80%. (Stats from WHO). And no, the flu shot can’t give you the flu. That myth, and many more, are debunked here.

What if I get the flu?

There is an antiviral treatment for the flu, which is especially effective if you can get it as soon as symptoms start. It’s recommended for people who are at risk of serious complications, including pregnant women, nursing home residents, and people who are hospitalized, immunosuppressed, or dealing with serious illness to begin with.

If you just want to feel better at home, bad news: Vitamin C doesn’t do much (and most of the almost-promising research is based on the “common cold,” not influenza.) A review of oscillococcinum, P. quinquefolium, Sambucus, and Kan Jang found “no compelling evidence” that they do anything for flu symptoms.

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