The "flu often doesn't get enough respect."
That's what Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said at a news conference Thursday, noting the illness can be debilitating for many people.
The best way to prevent yourself from getting the flu is getting the flu vaccine – it cuts your risk of coming down with the illness by at least half, Frieden said. It also helps prevent the virus from spreading to others.
Despite the benefits, health officials say fewer Americans are getting the vaccine. During the 2015-16 season, 45.6 percent of the population (about 144 million people) got the flu vaccine – that's down 1.5 percent from the previous season, a news release says.
How bad will flu season be?
The CDC can't really predict how bad a flu season will be, but says the more people who get vaccinated, the better it prevents the illness from spreading. (If 70 percent of people get the vaccine, it helps provide "herd immunity" and limits widespread transmission of the illness.)
Flu season typically starts in October and November, and can go as late as May. Influenza activity typically peaks between December and March, the CDC says.
Who should get the vaccine?
The agency recommends everyone age 6 months of age and older get the flu vaccine every year, noting the vaccine can reduce the risk of influenza complications and influenza-related hospitalizations and deaths, among other benefits.
Frieden notes people over the age of 65, pregnant women and children under the age of 2 tend to be the most vulnerable to the flu – the illness causes 100,000 hospitalizations and an average of 30,000 deaths annually, USA Today reports. (During the 2015-16 flu season in Minnesota, there were three pediatric flu-related deaths.)
There's plenty of the vaccine available this year, and the CDC is urging people to get it before the end of October. The vaccine typically takes about two weeks to start working, so it's best to get it before flu season begins.
Some new things for this flu season
There are a few new things people should know about this year's flu vaccine.
First, only injectable flu shots are recommended this year, the CDC says. That's because studies have shown the nasal spray version of the vaccine (which has grown popular for kids) might not be that good at protecting people against the flu, although officials aren't really sure why that is.
That's not the best news for people who aren't too keen on needles, but there is some good news for when you get the shot. The vaccine has been updated to better match the circulating viruses, thus likely improving the effectiveness of the vaccine.
And there are some new vaccines on the market this year, including one that prevents against four different strains of influenza (instead of the typical three) that are expected to be the most common, as well as one that includes a booster that helps make it more effective – especially in older adults.
Also, if you're allergic to eggs, the CDC's recommendations for vaccination has changed. Read about it here.