Flu season is on the rise in Texas earlier than usual, and amid reports that two people died from the flu last month in Travis County, health officials are making the case that getting the flu shot this winter is particularly worthwhile.
At this point in the flu season last year, Texas doctors had reported about 10,300 instances in which patients were exhibiting flu-like symptoms, according to reports sent to the Texas Department of State Health Services. This year, that number is higher than 14,700.
That spike is reflected in some parts of Central Texas as well, according to officials in Travis, Williamson and Hays counties. In Travis County, two people died last month after experiencing complications from the flu, according to county health officials. They declined to release the victims’ exact ages, but said they were both over 50.
Seeing a high number of cases early in the season “is always going to concern us because it means it’s a severe season. It’s going to last longer and more people are going to get sick,” said Dr. Ross Tobleman, who works in the emergency department of Baylor Scott & White Medical Center in Round Rock.
Speaking to the American-Statesman on Thursday, Tobleman said he had already seen 10 patients that day who had come to the emergency room with flu-like symptoms. Baylor Scott & White lab officials have reported that more people have been tested so far this flu season than the total number of people who took the flu test all last winter, Tobleman said.
Eric Schneider, an epidemiologist with the Hays County Local Health Department, said his area also is seeing a spike. Cases documented by the health department are only a fraction of the total number of sick people in the county, but experts say they suggest an increase from last year. In December 2016, Schneider’s department received about 15 reports of people testing positive for flu; this year, they’ve had 110 so far.
Travis County also is seeing an increase in influenza reports this flu season compared with last year, officials said.
State health officials said reasons for the uptick are hard to pin down, but there’s no reason for alarm.
“Every flu season looks a little bit different every year,” said Dr. Jennifer Shuford, infectious disease medical officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services. “There’s no predicting it, and there’s no way we can tell exactly when it’s going to peak.”
The influenza virus usually hits its victims quickly and suddenly, and symptoms usually include fever, chills, coughing, a sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, and body aches.
“The flu’s going to last five to seven days, then it’ll take a good three to four days to recover after that,” Tobleman said.
Tobleman and Schneider stressed that it’s not too late to get the flu shot, which is recommended for anyone at least 6 months old. Most CVS and Walgreens pharmacies offer the vaccine.
“The average person will get the flu and spend three to four days in bed with a fever, chills and aches and then get better,” Schneider said. “But it’s children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems that are at risk of hospitalization and death.”
Schneider said that getting the flu vaccine doesn’t guarantee you won’t get sick, but it reduces the likelihood that you will.
“The flu shot is not 100 percent effective, but even if you do get sick, it helps your body fight it off easier,” he said.
Schneider and Tobleman both said they often have to fight back the common misconception that the flu shot can give you the flu. Flu shot recipients cannot get the flu from the vaccine, they said.
Getting a full night’s rest on a regular basis is also a good way to ensure your immune system is strong and can protect you from the flu, Tobleman said.
“The more fatigued you are, the more rundown your immune system is,” he said.
People who do get the flu this year can do their part to prevent further outbreaks by staying home from work or school while they’re sick, officials said.
“It takes a community effort to prevent a flu outbreak,” Schneider said.