More than 6 million have been sick with flu so far this season, CDC says

By Ashley Welch

/ CBS News

Between 6 and 7 million people gotten the flu so far during the 2018–2019 flu season, according to the first official estimates this year from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Of those affected, roughly half went to the doctor for their illness and between 69,000 and 84,000 people have been hospitalized for severe cases of flu. Flu activity remains elevated in the U.S., with 15 states experienced high levels of illness.

Why the flu can be so dangerous

According to the latest CDC update, three more children died from the flu in the first week of January, bringing the total to 16 pediatric deaths so far this flu season. Last year, the flu killed more than 80,000 Americans, including a record 185 children.

While most people will recover from the flu within a few days to less than two weeks, some develop complications which can turn deadly. These complications can include serious breathing problems, severe dehydration, and infections like pneumonia and sepsis.

Other rare complications from the flu that can be fatal include infection of the heart (or myocarditis) which can cause sudden death or heart failure, and infection of the brain (or encephalitis) which can lead to seizures and dangerous swelling of the brain.

Children under the age of 5, and especially those younger than 2, as well as people who are 65 and older are more likely to develop complications from flu. Pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions such as lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, and neurologic conditions are also in the higher-risk group.

Protect yourself and your family from flu

The best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot. While the CDC recommends that people get vaccinated against the flu by the end of October, getting a flu shot later can still be beneficial.

"It is recommended that people still get the flu vaccination if they have not already," said infectious disease expert Dr. David Cennimo of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. "Even if you think you had the flu already, it is possible to get a second infection with a different strain, so immunization can still be beneficial."

Flu activity tends to peak between December and February but can last as late as May.

It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body that protect against the flu virus, so the earlier the shot is administered, the better.

Other steps the CDC recommends to prevent flu include:

First published on January 11, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Ashley Welch

Ashley Welch covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com

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