As a new influenza season approaches, memories of the last still weigh on the mind of Dr. Tim Jones, state epidemiologist at the Tennessee Department of Health.
"Last year was one of the worst years we've had in several years, both in terms of overall number of flu cases, number of hospitalizations — pretty much by all measures," Jones said. "Unfortunately, it's really hard to predict, and what happened last year doesn't give us any more information about what's going to happen this year."
That's why Jones and other health experts are urging residents to prepare by getting a flu shot now so they're protected when the virus strikes. Unlike common colds, which also circulate during the fall and winter, symptoms of the flu begin suddenly and include high fever, cough, sore throat, congestion, body aches, headache and fatigue.
"The flu is more than just a 'bad cold,'" Kayla Johnson, a nurse practitioner at CHI Memorial Convenient Care – Atrium, said in an email. "Many people are hospitalized and/or die from the flu every year."
Eugenia Shaver, a family nurse practitioner at MinuteClinic in Hixson, said she's already seen some sporadic cases of influenza.
"It varies year to year, but usually around October, November you'll start seeing it, and then especially around the holidays when everyone starts traveling and spending time together," Shaver said. "Getting vaccinated sooner is better, just because it takes two to three weeks to build up your immunity."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone 6 months old and older receive a flu shot before the end of October. But despite that recommendation, only about 39 percent of people in the United States were vaccinated last season.
Convincing people to get a flu shot is always a challenge, because the vaccine works better some years than others.
"One of patients' biggest objections to getting the flu vaccine is concern that it won't work," Johnson said. "I always stress to patients that the benefits of getting the flu vaccine far outweigh the risks of not getting the flu vaccine."
Good hand hygiene, frequently disinfecting surfaces, staying well-hydrated, eating a healthy diet, and getting plenty of sleep are other important prevention measures people can take, she said, and prescription antiviral medications can help people who still fall victim.
Last year "wasn't the greatest" in terms of flu shot effectiveness, Jones said, but he expects an improvement with the latest vaccine.
"Even though it's not perfect in terms of completely preventing the flu, it's very safe and effective in decreasing the risk of being hospitalized or dying from the flu," he said. "So even in the worst years, it definitely has that advantage."
Vaccination is the best way to limit the spread of the disease, especially to those with a higher risk of developing complications from the virus, such as infants, pregnant women, older adults and people with medical conditions.
"A lot of times people who aren't in those risk groups feel like, 'I'm young and healthy. It's not a big deal. I'll take my chance," Jones said, which is problematic for public health.
"We might not even know it, but we are around those high-risk people. Getting a flu vaccine isn't only a benefit for yourself, but it's also a benefit to people around you," he said. "And if nothing else, that's a good reason to get it."
Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6673.