Flu season is off to a slow start – but could pick up

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Flu season is upon us – and if those who check their symptoms on WebMD is any indication, the Twin Cities could be in for a rough time.

The website puts the Twin Cities at No. 10 on a list of 20 cities expected to see high rates of cold and flu symptoms this winter, the Huffington Post says. WebMD used geolocation information and data from its symptom checker to make an interactive map that projects sickness across the country.

Overall, this flu season has been off to a slower start compared to past years, according to the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), but it's starting to pick up, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says.

Some states – including Minnesota – have recently reported regional flu activity. So far this season, there have been 38 cases of influenza in Minnesota that have required hospitalization, the Minnesota Department of Health says.

 (Photo: Minnesota Department of Health)

(Photo: Minnesota Department of Health)

And cases of the flu are expected to increase in the coming weeks. Experts at WebMD told the Huffington Post flu season is expected to spike in early January, while researchers who lead the flu forecast project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory say it won't peak until February. (See the latest flu forecast report here.)

Why the late start?

That's difficult to determine.

Melissa McMahon, with the Minnesota Department of Health, told BringMeTheNews Tuesday there are many reasons our flu season could be starting later this year, and it's hard to pinpoint one thing.

There's evidence that flu spreads more in colder, drier air (that's why there are more cases of the flu in the winter, the Weather Channel reported), but McMahon says it is "unclear" if the warmer, wetter fall Minnesota has seen is correlated with the quiet influenza season thus far.

She notes that the rest of the U.S. is seeing a similar pattern and low case counts this year – including southern states that are typically warm year-round (and can be quite humid).

McMahon also says flu seasons have started earlier than usual the past few years, noting we're on par for a peak flu season in February.

More mild year?

Despite WedMD's prediction that the Twin Cities could see high rates of flu-like symptoms, fewer cases of the flu are expected this year,��according to the Scientific American, noting flu seasons that peak later are typically more mild.

The flu forecast report shows Region 5, which includes Minnesota, has a 67 percent chance of seeing a milder flu season, while most other regions have a higher chance.

It's important to note that a mild flu season refers to how many people get sick – not how severe the flu is for someone, reports say.

Flu shot expected to be more effective

The late start to the flu season gives people more time to get a flu shot, Live Science reports, which is one of the best ways to help prevent getting the virus – or giving it to someone else, the CDC notes.

And there's good news for those who got – or are planning to get – the vaccine. Researchers with the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology say this year's vaccine is expected to be a better "match" – it's expected to be more effective.

McMahon also agreed that this year's vaccine is a good match to the flu strains that are circulating so far this year, which could help keep flu illness low.

You may remember last year's flu season. The vaccine wasn't well-matched to the strain of flu virus that was going around. Health officials reported the vaccine was only 23 percent effective, so many people who got a flu shot still got sick.

The CDC says studies will still be needed to determine how effective this year's flu vaccine is, reports note.

Health care officials recommend everyone ages 6 months and older get a flu vaccine. The flu can be a serious illness, especially in young children and adults 65 and older, those with underlying health conditions, and women who are pregnant, the CDC says.

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