Flu season is here. Are you ready?

Flu season has officially made its debut in Texas, with doctor’s offices and hospitals across the state noting an uptick in influenza cases in recent weeks. While the season, which started Oct. 1, has remained relatively mild compared to past years, influenza and pneumonia have already claimed almost 1,900 lives across Texas, according to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that this flu season could end up being worse than in years prior primarily because the type of strain that has been circulating – influenza A – often leads to more severe complications that can cause hospitalizations and deaths. While the CDC recommends people receive their flu vaccine before the end of October, the good news is it’s not too late to get one if you haven’t already.

“The problem is that as the season goes on and people continue to put off getting vaccinated, they are delaying getting sick,” said Dr. Michael Chang, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital and McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “By the time you come down with symptoms, it’s too late to protect yourself or others whom you may have affected along the way.”

It’s important to note that it takes about 14 days after vaccination to receive full protection against the flu. Even then, the vaccine does not prevent a person from getting the flu; rather, it lessens the effects of the virus, providing protection from severe flu illnesses that require medical attention.

Recent reports have suggested that some people who received the vaccine in July or August may not enjoy the same level of protection throughout the entirety of the flu season, which stretches to March in most areas. However, Dr. Chang said there’s not enough evidence to scientifically say that the vaccine’s effectiveness can wear off if received too early in the season.

“Generally speaking, the antibodies to the seasonal vaccine are still detectable in blood six to nine months after vaccination, and sometimes even longer,” he said. “For some people, it may be possible to get the vaccine too early; however, for most people, it’s more of a concern if they get it too late. The most important message is that people should get vaccinated at some point during the season.”

Unfortunately, the rates of vaccination in the United States have remained stubbornly low. By November, only about 40 percent of people had been vaccinated, according to the CDC, posing a major cause of concern for providers like Dr. Chang who see the devastating effects of flu first-hand.

While the flu may pose little more than an inconvenience for some healthy people – such as a few days away from work or school – the disease can cause serious consequences for those with weakened immune systems, as well as the very young and the elderly. In Texas, for example, nearly 79 percent of the deaths attributable to flu and pneumonia were among people ages 65 and older. There have been no pediatric deaths associated with the flu in the state this year.

“It’s important to remember that by getting vaccinated, you are not only protecting yourself, you are protecting others who may be especially vulnerable to complications,” Dr. Chang said.

There’s still time to protect yourself and your loved ones this flu season. Memorial Hermann’s partner, RediClinic, provides flu shots at convenient locations across the Greater Houston area. Click here to find the location closest to you.

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Tashika Varma