Age and Weather Could Influence Severity of Flu Season, Experts Say

By: 
Contributor

Although the rates of influenza have remained relatively low in Michigan so far this year, the thick of flu season is only just beginning. And while certain factors, such as age and weather, have long been known to impact the severity of each epidemic, experts are only just beginning to understand exactly how such relationships work.


"Flu happens when there's a lot of people that are in close proximity," said David Davenport, director of the Borgess Medical Center of Infection Prevention and Control in Kalamazoo. "That happens more in the winter months."


In other words, the colder temperatures get, the more likely people are to remain indoors and spread germs through touch or airborne transmission. Some researchers also have evidence that the flu virus itself becomes more viable in cold, dry conditions. The particles can live on surfaces up to 24 hours at 20% humidity, for instance, compared to just one hour at 80% humidity conditions.


Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone six months of age and older should get a flu shot every year, a person's prior exposure to certain strains could also strengthen their immunity against future similar flu bacteria.


A recent study conducted in Asia and the Middle East found that people exposed to bird flu viruses back in 1968 were less likely to become severely infected with similar strains today. Despite common belief that older adults are more susceptible to the flu, such "childhood imprinting" may actually create a safeguard against future epidemics.


"If you've been exposed to something similar to that, then you'll have a milder illness," Davenport explained. "Which leads to the young people who have had no exposure having more of a chance for certain types of influenza to have more severe disease."


At the same time, adults over age 65 are still more likely to develop complications from the flu or require hospitalization for their symptoms because of a weakening immune system. Therefore, encouraging a "herd immunity" through flu vaccines is still strongly advised for people of all ages.

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