This year’s flu shot might not stop the virus, but it can fend off the worst symptoms

There’s a potent flu virus infecting Americans this influenza season — even healthy people including a marathon runner and bodybuilder have become seriously ill. But although the flu shot isn’t so effective this year, the vaccine will still probably spare you from the most severe symptoms, hospitalization, or at worst, death.

Like most flu seasons, there are a few strains circulating around the country right now, but one of these — dubbed H3N2 – is notably vicious. At worst, it’s taken the lives of children and healthy adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes there is "widespread" flu activity in nearly every region it monitors around the country, and H3N2 was the most frequently identified strain reported as of mid-January. 

RELATED: Flu season

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Flu season in the United States
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Flu season in the United States
Emergency room nurse Kathy Nguyen wears a mask as deals with flu patients at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, California, U.S., January 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Emergency room nurse Christine Bauer treats Joshua Lagade of Vista, California, for the flu as his girlfriend Mayra Mora looks on in the emergency room at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, California, U.S., January 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Emergency room nurse Christine Bauer treats Joshua Lagade of Vista, California, for the flu in the emergency room at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, California, U.S., January 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Doug Hasselo, 87 of Carlsbad, California, is treated for the flu by float nurse Nellie Reyes in the emergency room at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, California, U.S., January 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Joshua Lagade of Vista, California, gets an IV from emergency room nurse Christine Bauer at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, California, U.S., January 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Emergency room nurse Richard Horner wears a mask as he deals with flu patients at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, California, U.S., January 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A doctor hold a syringe as part of the start of the seasonal influenza vaccination campaign in Nice, France October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
Boxes of vaccines against the flu are seen as part of the start of the seasonal influenza vaccination campaign in Nice, France October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
PORTLAND, ME - DECEMBER 29: Troy Ali, 21 of Portland receives a flu shot from Greater Portland Health medical assistant Anissa Millette at the clinic in Franklin Towers on Cumberland Ave on Friday, December 29, 2017. (Staff Photo by Carl D. Walsh/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 22: Vials of the Fluvirin influenza vaccine are displayed at a Walgreens phramacy on January 22, 2018 in San Francisco, California. A strong strain of H3N2 influenza has claimed the lives of 74 Californians under the age of 65 since the flu season began in October of last year. People are being encouraged to get flu shots even through the vaccine has been only 30% effective in combating the influenza. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 22: A sign advertising flu shots is displayed at a Walgreens phramacy on January 22, 2018 in San Francisco, California. A strong strain of H3N2 influenza has claimed the lives of 74 Californians under the age of 65 since the flu season began in October of last year. People are being encouraged to get flu shots even through the vaccine has been only 30% effective in combating the influenza. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Generally, severe fevers, chills, and fatigue are compelling an unusually high number Americans to seek medical treatment.

“Our hospitals are brimming in the ER,” said Joan Faro, Chief Medical Officer at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital on Long Island, New York, in an interview. “Occupancy rates are through the roof.”

Even medical professionals are taking extra precautions against this season’s virus. Faro said inoculated staff are wearing masks around sick patients — and that’s something she hasn’t seen before.

“There’s an awareness that there’s something going on, something that is a little bit different than previous years,” Faro said.

The H3N2 virus, though, has hit the U.S. numerous times before. And when it does, “it tends to be a rougher season,” said Susan Donelan, medical director and assistant professor of infectious disease at Stony Brook University’s School of Medicine, in an interview. 

“It’s not pretty.”

Related: Eat this to fight off a cold

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Breakfast Boosters: 14 Foods to Fight Off a Cold
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Breakfast Boosters: 14 Foods to Fight Off a Cold

Kiwi

Kiwis contain between 90 and 110 milligrams of vitamin C — more than an average orange. They are a good source of potassium, an important mineral for strong muscles and nerves, plus immune-boosting vitamin E. They are also packed with flavonoids and carotenoids — antioxidants that promote respiratory health, heart health and optimum well-being, says Suki Hertz, M.S., R.D., nutrition professor at the Culinary Institute of America. Cut kiwis in half and scoop out the flesh for a fruit salad or mash up and stir into plain yogurt.

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Papaya

Papayas are praised for their anti-inflammatory properties. They're also an excellent source of vitamin C—one medium papaya supplies 313 percent of your daily requirement, explains Hertz. Additionally, they are a great source of beta-carotene, a phytonutrient that gets converted to vitamin A in your body and keeps eyes, skin and mucous membranes moist. Have a few slices for breakfast in the morning or blend some with orange juice for a tropical smoothie.

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Ginger

If you feel a cold coming on ward it off with ginger, which can alleviate cold symptoms and clear nasal passages. It also promotes digestive health, reduces gas pains and relaxes the intestinal tract, explains Hertz. If you find yourself battling a stomach bug or winter cold, try steeping slices of fresh ginger in hot water for a soothing and healthy morning drink.

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Pumpkin Seeds

Pumpkin seeds are packed with vitamins, amino acids and minerals, including zinc. Zinc helps the immune system by acting as an antioxidant and minimizing damage to cell membranes from free radicals, explains Hertz. Pumpkin seeds are delicious alone or sprinkled in yogurt, oatmeal or cereal. For a sweet and spicy breakfast on the go, try this energy mix.

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Wheat Germ

Full of essential vitamins and fats, wheat germ, the nutrient source of the wheat grain, can help give your immune system a boost. It's also high in vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps fight inflammation, says Hertz. Sprinkle wheat germ in yogurt, oatmeal or cold cereal.

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Beets

Give your morning glass of orange juice a boost by blending it with cooked beets — just remember to strain it before serving. Packed with antioxidants and magnesium, a mineral that assists with nerve and muscle function, beets are also especially rich in folate. This B vitamin helps prevent serious birth defects and is important for women of childbearing age and for heart health, explains Hertz.

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Flax Seeds

Flax seeds are chock-full of important nutrients and minerals, including vitamin E, an antioxidant that keeps cells healthy, and alpha-linolenic acid, a vegetarian source of omega-3 fatty acids. To obtain these healthy fats, flax seeds must be ground first, explains Hertz. A coffee grinder works perfectly for this.

Famous for their nutty flavor, flax seeds can be sprinkled on yogurt, oatmeal or cold cereal. Flax oil is another option and a good way to add important nutrients to smoothies. Both flax seeds and flax oil are highly perishable and should be kept in the refrigerator for up to three months.

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Lemons

Besides being packed with vitamin C, lemons promote healthy bacteria, rather than the type that can cause viruses and colds. Hertz suggests using lemon in place of sugar and salt, both of which can weaken the immune system. In the morning, try squeezing some on fresh fruit instead of sprinkling with sugar.

Blueberries

It's no wonder blueberries are called a superfood — they have more antioxidants than any other fruit or vegetable. They are also one of the highest-ranking foods in anthocyanidins (cancer-fighting antioxidants) and are excellent sources of vitamin C, manganese and fiber, says Hertz. Start your morning with this Greek yogurt parfait, a beautiful dish that delivers a healthy mix of berries.

Eggs

Egg yolks are a good source of selenium, a powerful mineral that supports a healthy immune system. Research on eggs is proving they are not the heart-disease villains they were once thought to be, explains Hertz. The protein in the whites is of the highest value, and the yolks, although high in dietary cholesterol, are relatively low in saturated fat.

Tofu

People who don't eat enough protein tend to load up on carbs, which can increase blood sugar levels and weaken the immune system. Tofu is a complete protein and a good source of calcium and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which can strengthen the immune system, says Hertz. For a high-protein drink that's good on the go, try this quick smoothie.

Quinoa

Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) is commonly referred to as a grain, but it's actually a seed that can be cooked. A super food, quinoa is one of the few "complete proteins" of the plant world, meaning it supplies all of the essential amino acids that are found in meat, poultry or fish, such as lysine, which helps with tissue repair, says Hertz. In the morning, swap white or whole-wheat bread with a multigrain loaf that's loaded with quinoa, bulgur and millet.

Grapefruit and Oranges

Everyone knows that citrus is chock-full of vitamin C, and it's also packed with powerful antioxidants and is low in calories, says Hertz. For a healthy breakfast that's sure to strengthen your immune system, try a fruit salad that combines three types.

Cottage Cheese

Cottage cheese contains selenium, a powerful antioxidant that can strengthen the immune system, says Hertz. To give your immune system a boost, try this breakfast parfait which combines cottage cheese with vitamin C-rich papaya and wheat germ.

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Already this flu season, 37 children have died in the U.S. from the virus, according to the CDC

This virus is exceptionally nasty because it tends to change more than other flu viruses during the course of a season. Donelan calls these slight changes, known as “genetic drift,” little tweaks that occur in the viruses’ genes during or between the flu season. 

The H3N2 virus' ability to change with time renders the flu vaccine, which is basically a weakened form of several dominant flu viruses, an imperfect match against this year's dominant illness. In essence, those who received the flu shot have spent time preparing to fight a specific invader that, when it finally arrives, ends up presenting itself differently.

The flu vaccine becomes “a near match, but it’s not a perfect match,” said Shane Speights, a dean and associate professor of medicine at New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine.

A CDC map indicating geographic spread of the flu viruses, as of January 20, 2018. The tan areas indicate widespread influenza activity estimates.

A CDC map indicating geographic spread of the flu viruses, as of January 20, 2018. The tan areas indicate widespread influenza activity estimates.

Image: CDC

Our flu vaccines are bred in laboratories months in advance, so the virus has ample time to morph during that period. When this happens, the virus can then successfully attack and reproduce in bodies that have been inoculated.

 

But getting the shot will mitigate the altered viruses’ aggressiveness.

“The vaccine certainly still provides a lot of benefits,” explained Speights. “It’s still enough for your body to mount a response.”

“It starts creating infantry cells so that when you come in contact with the real thing, it has some resistance to fight it off,” said Speights.

And this bit of resistance, said Donelan, “can still keep people from getting really ill, and if hospitalized, can keep them from dying.”

Related: Surprising sources of Vitamin C:

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10 Surprising Sources of Vitamin C
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10 Surprising Sources of Vitamin C

One large orange, or an eight-ounce glass of orange juice, contains about 100 milligrams of vitamin C—that’s 130 percent of the daily recommended intake for women over 18. Whether you have trouble tolerating the acidity of citrus or just can’t stomach the thought of chugging another glass of OJ, here are some other tasty options that offer as much C—or more.

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Red Pepper

One sweet red pepper: 152 milligrams of vitamin C (203 percent daily value)

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Kale

One cup of raw kale: 80 milligrams of vitamin C (107 percent daily value)

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Strawberries

One cup of strawberries: 97.6 milligrams of vitamin C (130 percent daily value)

Bonus! The same amount of frozen strawberries has 105.6 milligrams of C.

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Broccoli

One cup of cooked broccoli: 101 milligrams of vitamin C (135 percent daily value)

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Potatoes

One large red potato or sweet potato: 36 milligrams of vitamin C (48 percent daily value)

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Brussels Sprouts

One Brussels sprout: 13 milligrams of vitamin C (17 percent daily value)

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Papaya

One papaya: 185 milligrams of vitamin C (247 percent daily value)

Image Credit: Thinkstock

Coffee

One eight-ounce mug of Green Mountain Coffee’s new Antioxidant Blend K-Cups: 6 milligrams of added vitamin C (8 percent daily value)

Image Credit: Thinkstock

Cabbage

One cup of cooked kohlrabi: 89 milligrams of vitamin C (119 percent daily value)

Image Credit: Thinkstock

Kiwi

Two medium kiwis: 141 milligrams of vitamin C (188 percent daily value)

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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For that reason, even if it’s late January or early February — which is quite late in the flu season – Speights emphasized that “It’s not too late to get the vaccine. At minimum, this will “give your body a look at [the virus],” he said.

And that seems like wise advice for a strain that can morph quickly, partially outwitting our carefully-developed vaccines. 

“Influenza is a pretty clever organism,” said Donelan.

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