Here’s why flu season is so bad this year — and how you can protect yourself from catching it

If you’ve been feeling like garbage with flu symptoms, you’re not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu season is really bad this year, with almost a 100,000 people reporting symptoms in the U.S. and upwards of 30 flu-related deaths. The bad news is that we might not have even reached the peak season yet, which means that if you haven’t gotten the flu yet, you can still protect yourself. (See, there’s always an upside.) There are a few reasons that the flu seems especially bad this year, though the experts are split on whether or not it’s the *actual* worst season.

So far, there about 6 percent of people seeking medical care have flu symptoms, according to CDC records. They get these numbers from doctors’ offices, which enter the number of people with a high fever, aches and pains, and other flu symptoms that came into their office on a weekly basis. So there could be more people out there with the flu than the CDC’s numbers, because we all don’t go to the doctor when we have the flu, whether it’s because we can’t afford the visit or the time off from work, or we self diagnose and medicate.

Right now, the flu outbreak is classified as “moderately severe,” which means that 49 states have reported widespread flu symptoms. That sounds super bad, but the New York Times reports that the flu was also “moderately severe” in 2014-2015, so this hasn’t reached historic levels yet. Then again, Dr. Brahim Ardolic, chairman of emergency medicine at Staten Island University Hospital in New York City says, “This is one of those flu seasons they’re gonna be comparing other flu seasons to.” Unfortunately, with the government shut down over the weekend, the agencies that monitor these numbers might not be considered “essential,” so our response to this severe flu season might not be as effective as it could be.

A bad flu season doesn’t necessarily mean that more people die from the flu. It just means that tons of people are getting hit by it hard. This year’s flu season began earlier than usual, in November, which is one reason that the number of sick people and deaths is already so high. Usually, flu season starts in December and then peaks in January or February, with a total three-month duration. This year, health officials aren’t even sure we’ve hit the peak yet. So that’s one reason the numbers are staggering when it comes to the flu this year.

Another reason the flu is so bad this year: the makeup of this year’s flu virus.

Every flu virus circulating the U.S. at the moment (and in recent history) is made up of five strains: influenza A, H3N2 and H1N1, two different strains of influenza B, and influenza C. Our flu shots include a little bit of all of them, so if you’ve gotten a flu shot, you’re already partially immune. This year, like in 2014-2015 when the flu was rampant, all the cases of reported flu have a dominant H3N2 strain. According to health officials, when the virus is H3N2 dominant, the symptoms are way worse than other kinds of flu. We also have less exposure to this strain, so our bodies aren’t used to fighting it, which makes the symptoms worse.

Another reason we’re having trouble with this year’s flu is that, according to National Geographic, the flu vaccine mutated while being prepared in laboratories, rendering it a little less useful than other years. All of these things mean that the 2017-2018 flu is hitting people hard. Here are a few things you can do to keep yourself as healthy as possible.

1Get a flu shot!

It’s not too late to get a flu shot, and it does nothing but help you. Yes, this year’s shot is reportedly not the best defense against the H3N2 strain, but it does make you partially immune, so if you do get the flu, the symptoms won’t be as serious. Look, it can’t hurt. If you have kids, babysit, volunteer with the elderly, or have a weakened immune system — such as a chronic disease, are pregnant, or are elderly — you should definitely get a flu shot and convince all of your friends to do the same. When you get a flu shot, you’re not just protecting yourself, but anyone around you who might be susceptible to it. The flu can lead to hospitalizations and death if serious — just got get a damn flu shot.

2Be extra sanitary.

Of course, you already wash your hands and carry hand sanitizer, but you should be extra vigilant this year. If someone in your house has already had the flu, make sure you’re changing out bed sheets, hand towels, and even things like kitchen sponges so you’re super germ free. At work, make sure your communal spaces are sanitized. And for the love of all things considerate, cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze.

3Give people a break.

Our culture is obsessed with work and being busy, which means we demand so much from each other that 90 percent of people come to work when they’re sick. That’s so unhealthy for everyone. If you manage people at work and they’re sick, send them home or let them off the hook easy when they call out. Not only will you be protecting the health of your whole team, the workplace culture will just be better.

We should do the same for our friends — just because you powered through your cold and went to spin class anyway doesn’t mean your friend has to, especially because only they know how crappy they feel. Encourage people to get rest and feel better soon, because the last thing the world needs is more sick people out there coughing and sneezing the flu virus al over the place.

4Give yourself a break!

You need to take care of yourself, too. Sometimes it really does feel like the world will end if we take a day off work, whether because our inboxes will explode, we’re stressing about making a rent payment next month, or you have kids that aren’t going to make dinner for themselves if you’re sleeping off a fever. It’s totally unfair that we have to make a choice between our health, our bank accounts, and our reputation at work. But it’s OK to ask for help and a day off when you’re sick. Putting your physical and mental health first is a badass thing to do. Working through fevers, chills, and sore throats (and getting everyone else sick in the process) is silly. The only way to beat this bad flu season is to practice self care.