Every fall and winter, you hear the same mantra from doctors and other health experts: get the flu vaccine. Stores like Target and Publix have even started getting involved in recent years, offering coupons, rebates or cash as a reward for those who get the shot. Although its efficiency can differ from year to year, doctors seem pretty united that the vaccine does help. So why isn’t the flu vaccine working so well in 2018? That’s a good question.

This year, influenza has hit the United States particularly hard—and it’s still early in the season. According to the Los Angeles Times, California has experienced a huge burden already. To date, 27 people younger than age 65 have already died in California this year, up significantly from only 3 deaths this time last year.

Experts are still trying to figure out whether the season has just peaked earlier than in previous years. While that fact is a possibility, the stark rise in cases will pose a huge concern for upcoming months if the peak is still yet to come.

Understandably, doctors and hospital staff are already concerned. Not only is the commonly prescribed drug Tamiflu running out of stores in the big state, but emergency rooms are getting packed with patients needing immediate care.

In Riverside county, ERs are becoming so packed that ambulances are having to wait to unload their ill patients. Of course, the wait is also keeping them from responding to other calls and only exacerbating the health burden.

So far this year, New York City and 26 states are experiencing high influenza activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Weekly Surveillance Report. These states include Alabama, California, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Ohio and the Virginias, among others.

How the Flu Vaccine Works

If so many medical experts are pushing for flu vaccination, then why are Americans getting hit so hard with the illness? As you may know, the flu vaccine doesn’t always prevent you from contracting influenza. However, research shows that it can shorten the timeframe and make your illness less severe.

According to the CDC, the flu vaccine does normally reduce the risk of getting influenza by 40 to 60 percent. Though this year, the shot is proving less effective because of the flu strain that’s presenting—influenza A(H3N2).

The CDC website offers two reasons why the flu vaccine doesn’t work well against H3N2. First, all influenza strains can have changes in their genetic makeup from the time the yearly flu vaccine is created to the time it’s administered. Basically, people have to trust that the strain they’re vaccinating with is similar enough to the strain that is currently circulating.

In H3N2’s case, though, the virus tends to undergo greater genetic changes, causing the vaccine to differ greatly from the actual circulating virus. In short, experts need to figure out an effective way to make up that difference so that we can have a better vaccine.

Second, most seasonal flu vaccines are produced using a process that involves growth in eggs. This process always produces some change in the virus that can make it less effective. Again, however, H3N2 seems to undergo the biggest change.

While this method of production might be the most efficient or cost-effective, experts need to consider using other options as a primary way of making the vaccines. Cell-based production, recombinant flu vaccines, and other molecular techniques exist—companies just need to take advantage of the technology. People’s lives are literally depending on it.

Will vitamin C & D help prevent the flu virus?

Protect Yourself

Although getting the flu vaccine is the best way to guard against the flu, you can take lifestyle precautions too. In seasons like this one where vaccination may not prove as effective, these factors can help guard against serious illness. Try these:  

  1. Wash your hands regularly.

Scrub them in warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds several times per day, especially before eating a meal. If you handle mail, money or have a lot of other contact with customers or coworkers, consider washing your hands even more often.

2. Get plenty of sleep.

Likewise, take care of yourself by eating well and including plenty of fruits and vegetables in your diet. Taking care of your body will make sure that its line of defenses are at their peak should any invaders creep in.

3. Cover your mouth.

To prevent any sickness from spreading, cover your mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing. Stay away from anyone who doesn’t do the same or appears sick in any way.

4. Don’t touch your face.

The easiest way for bacteria to spread right into your body is through direct contact with the openings: eyes, ears, nose or mouth. Keep yourself from touching these areas, and you’ll probably see less sickness in your lifetime.

5. Stay home.

When you’re sick, other people will greatly appreciate your courtesy of staying away. While you may have other important tasks to do, nothing is more important than getting better and keeping others healthy in the process.

Needless to say, you should stay on guard this 2018 flu season as more and more people get sick with the flu. Using lifestyle precautions and getting medical help if your sickness takes a turn for the worse should help you overcome any serious repercussions. In the meantime, let’s hope that researchers will get busy on making the flu vaccine more efficient for next year.