MONDAY, Jan. 5, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- The current flu season, already off to a rough start, continues to get worse, with 43 states now reporting widespread flu activity and 21 child deaths so far, U.S. health officials said Monday.
And, the predominate flu continues to be the H3N2 strain -- one that is poorly matched to this year's vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The proportion of outpatient visits for flu-like symptoms reached nearly 6 percent by the end of December, way above the baseline of 2 percent, CDC spokeswoman Erin Burns said Monday.
Flu reaches epidemic levels in the United States every year, Dr. Michael Jhung, a medical officer in CDC's influenza division, told HealthDay last week. Whether this flu season will be more severe or milder than previous ones won't be known until April or May, he added.
The number of children's deaths from flu varies by year, Jhung said. "In some years we see as few as 30, in other years we have seen over 170," he said.
Although it's the middle of the flu season, the CDC continues to recommend that everyone 6 months and older get a flu shot. The reason: there's more than one type of flu circulating, and the vaccine protects against at least three strains of circulating virus, Jhung said.
"If you encounter one of those viruses where there is a very good match, then you will be well-protected," he said. "Even if there isn't a great match, the vaccine still provides protection against the virus that's circulating."
People at risk of flu-related complications include young children, especially those younger than 2 years; people over 65; pregnant women; and people with chronic health problems, such as asthma, heart disease and weakened immune systems, according to the CDC.
Common flu symptoms can include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, muscle aches and fatigue. Vomiting and diarrhea are seen more often in children with flu than adults.
Most people recover from flu anywhere from a few days to a bit less than two weeks. But others suffer life-threatening complications, such as pneumonia, according to the CDC.
Parents should take flu seriously, and get medical help if they feel their child is very sick, Jhung said.
Warning signs might include a cough that disrupts sleep, a fever that doesn't come down with treatment, or increased shortness of breath, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Adults and children with bad flu can be treated with antiviral medications such as Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (inhaled zanamivir), Jhung said. "Those work best when they are given very quickly. So if you do have signs and symptoms of flu, reach out to a health care provider and get evaluated," he said.
Flu seasons are unpredictable, according to the CDC. Each year, on average, 5 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from complications. During a 30-year period, from 1976 to 2006, estimates of flu-related deaths in the United States ranged from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people, the agency said.
For more on flu, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.