Have you heard? The flu this year will fuck you up. This isn’t some lazy strain of illness you’ll contract only by licking a subway pole or letting a team of Kindergartners touch your sandwich. This flu is waiting for you, lurking on every airplane and office and supermarket you enter, searching your immune system for a moment of weakness before it pounces. And when you get it, it’s gonna be bad.
As I type this with my raw, over-scrubbed hands, the flu is advancing rapidly across the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it’s already claimed victims in 46 states—nearly four times as many as last year. Its strain—H3N2—is even more miserable than its recent predecessors, causing significant numbers of hospitalizations, particularly among children. According to CBS, one in 10,000 children under the age of four has been hospitalized with flu this season, and it’s only getting started.
So what can you do? The CDC says that first off, you should stay the hell away from sick people, and wash your hands so often that your skin starts to flake away, eventually leaving you with nothing but freshly-scrubbed bone. That’s paraphrased, but I’m pretty sure it’s what they meant. If washing with soap and water isn’t an option, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Don’t touch your face! Specifically your eyes, nose and mouth! If you must touch your face, either to scratch an itch or remove some mustard that landed there, wash (what’s left) of your hands (again) first.
And finally, get a flu shot. “But I always feel sick after I get a flu shot!” I whined, just now, to my computer. The CDC points out that flu shots can’t actually cause the flu, since the vaccine is made either with inactive flu viruses or no virus at all. The most common side effect from the shot is soreness or tenderness at the injection site; maybe a low-grade fever or muscle aches. Your (fine, my) childhood memories of getting the flu following a flu shot are fictitious. Lifehacker posits I probably just got the actual flu, since A) flu shots are not fail-safe B) maybe I didn’t get it soon enough or C) I am probably misremembering anyway. Fine.
“But it’s already January 11, probably no sense in getting one this year,” I declared to the cat, who responded by doing nothing. Wrong, apparently. A story in the New York Times today literally entitled “Why It’s Still Worth Getting a Flu Shot” argues that getting the flu shot won’t necessarily inoculate you against the virus, but it will mitigate the damage if you’re unlucky enough to get it. The piece breaks down the shot’s efficacy in terms of absolute risk, referring to the number of people who need to be treated in order for one person to benefit, a metric known as “number needed to treat,” or NNT:
Let’s say that this year’s flu vaccine is even worse than we think. Maybe the absolute risk reduction will be as low as 1 percentage point, making the N.N.T. 100. That’s still not that bad. Even at an N.N.T. of 100, for every 100 people who get a flu shot, one fewer will get the flu. That’s a pretty low N.N.T. compared with many other treatments that health experts recommend every day.
Further, a Cochrane review published in 2016 showed that the N.N.T. in children 6 years old or younger to prevent one flu case was just six — an astonishing payoff in medical terms. It has even been shown to be effective in preventing death in children from flu-related causes.
“Where do I even get a flu shot?” I just wailed across the room to a carton of eggs sitting on my countertop. Basically any pharmacy, though if you’re confused, the CDC also has a widget that allows you to search by zip code. Doctors and walk-in clinics are also good options.
“How much will this frickin’ thing cost?” I whimpered to my cuticles, which could use some love, frankly. Good news: The Affordable Care Act requires insurers to cover flu shots as preventative measures, though some companies may only cover them at specific locations. Without insurance, the price ranges from around $15 to $40 at national chains and drug stores like CVS and Costco.
If you do get sick, immediately obtain some Tamiflu, stay in bed, and be grateful you’re not a man.