If you have a raspy voice and a runny nose today, relax. The flu season has not arrived ahead of schedule.
What you probably are suffering from is para-influenza or a rhinovirus or an enterovirus, which somewhat mimic symptoms of the real flu, or influenza, but don't pack the same wallop.
While the copycat ailments can be uncomfortable and something of a nuisance for a few days , unlike influenza, they simply don't develop into pneumonia, which in many cases leads to death, experts say.
Still, North Americans could be in for a repeat of the 1989-90 influenza season when 50,000 people died of flu-related illnesses, warn specialists at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
Dr. W. Paul Glezon, chief epidemiologist at Baylor's Influenza Research Center, contends that the epidemic two years ago was the worst in this country in the past 20 years.
The new season, which will run from December through March, is expected to be dominated by Influenza A and outbreaks of Influenza A are usually more severe than type B.
"Over 90 percent of the circulating strains during the 1990-91 season were influenza B and, in the past, we've never had two predominantly B years in a row," Dr. Joanna Buffington, a physician in CDC's flu branch, said yesterday.
The influenza strains expected to dominate the new season are very close to A/Beijing and A/Taiwan, each named for the area where it was first observed.
A complicating factor, Glezon said, is that many people who are over age 65 and comprise the major influenza high-risk group, were born or went through childhood before the emergence of the A (H3N2) strain, of which A/Beijing is a variant.
"As a result, they have not built up resistance through prior exposure," he said. "But, help is available. The vaccine for this flu season protects against A/Beijing and A/Taiwan as well as against B/Panama, another strain that could appear."
The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene refused to make its flu specialists available for this story.
"The only thing to help prevent the flu is to get a shot," Buffington said, acknowledging that despite the availability each year of an effective vaccine, thousands of people most at risk for flu complications fail to get vaccinated.
"People seem to be afraid of adverse reactions," she said. "But let me tell you, the most common side effect is a sore arm and the second, which is not very common, is a slight fever.
"The vaccine is a killed virus strain so that it is no longer capable of causing infection but it still holds on to its immune system-stimulating properties, which is why it works to prevent infection from the live virus."
Buffington stressed that the boost to the immune system takes about two weeks to work. Often, however, a person has not gotten a flu shot by January and then discovers everyone in his office has influenza, so he rushes out and gets a shot. Then, the next day in the office someone coughs on him and he soon comes down with the flu.
"Then, that person is apt to say, 'The shot didn't work' or 'The shot gave me the flu,' " she said. "But, actually, they didn't get the shot in time. They were exposed to influenza and were infected before the shot had a chance to work."
The time frame for influenza shots is October and November, and, "unfortunately for us in the business, October and November are peak seasons for other viruses, like para-influenza, a virus that causes respiratory, coldlike symptoms; hundreds of rhinoviruses, which cause the common cold, or many entero viruses, which like influenza, cause headaches and muscle aches."
"The problem is that a lot of people call anything flu," Buffington said. "But influenza is a very specific virus."
Influenza usually strikes suddenly and produces fever -- and it can cause a pretty good fever, as well as muscle aches, fatigue and a dry, hacking cough, she said.
The ideal time for flu shots is long before the appearance, usually in December, of the first cases. Glezon suggests being vaccinated by Thanksgiving at the latest.
The over 65 population is the largest group of people who should get flu shots because they are particularly susceptible to such serious flu complications as pneumonia, he said.
Buffington said that older people whose immune systems may not be the greatest may not get 100 percent protection from the flu vaccine. "But, it's still the best protection they can get and more importantly, although they may still get influenza, they are less likely to get pneumonia or die from it," she said.
Other high-risk groups include people with heart disease; lung disease, including asthma and chronic bronchitis; diabetes; chronic kidney disease; and chronic anemia, including sickle cell disease.
Also at high risk are health care workers who are likely to come into contact with those in other high-risk groups.