ATLANTA – Health officials say this year's flu (search) outbreak, which has spread faster and earlier than usual, appears to be the worst in at least three years. And the leading vaccine makers have shipped all of their supply. Here are answers to some common questions:
Q: Will I be able to get a flu shot?
A: That depends on demand. There have been shortages in some hard-hit areas. The largest vaccine makers have distributed all the vaccine they produced -- 83 million doses -- and they can't make any more quickly. Americans have never used more than 80 million shots, but this year has seen a higher demand.
Q: Who needs the flu shot most?
A: People 50 and older, infants and toddlers, people with asthma, diabetes, chronic heart or lung disease and weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV; and women who will be more than 3 months pregnant during the flu season.
Q: Several children have died from the flu. Are they considered more at risk for this year's flu strain?
A: Disease experts are concerned that so many children seem to be affected, but they say they have too little information to consider them at greater risk for the flu.
Q: Since there may not be enough flu shots to go around, what should I do if I'm healthy?
A: Disease doctors are recommending the new FluMist nasal spray; it's more expensive, but there are ample supplies of it for use by healthy people ages 5-49.
Q: How do I know if I have a cold or the flu?
A: Colds usually begin slowly and typically last only two to seven days. They start with a scratchy, sore throat, then sneezing and a runny nose. A mild cough may follow. Young children can sometimes run temperatures up to 102 F. with a cold.
Flu often begins with a sudden headache and dry cough, possibly a runny nose and sore throat; also achy muscles and extreme fatigue. There may be a high fever. Most people feel better in a couple of days, but the tiredness and cough can last much longer. Flu can cause severe illness and life-threatening complications.
Children may have symptoms -- nausea, vomiting or diarrhea -- that are not common for adults.
Flu can be confirmed with a test if given within two to three days after symptoms begin, but getting it isn't always practical.
Q: What flu symptoms are dangerous?
A: A combination of symptoms -- sustained fever and chills, chest pain that gets worse when taking a deep breath and sputum that's a yellow color -- can indicate pneumonia and a doctor should be consulted.
Q: Can I get the flu even though I got a flu shot this year?
A: Yes, but it can make the symptoms milder and prevent deadly complications. Typically, the flu shot protects between 70 percent and 90 percent of healthy people. The elderly are more susceptible.
The power of the flu shot also depends on how well it matches the flu virus in circulation. The current Fujian flu strain affecting most people is not the strain in this year's flu shot. But disease experts say it is a close enough match that considerable protection should be provided.
Q: What are complications from the flu?
A: They include bacterial pneumonia, dehydration and worsening of chronic medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes. Seniors and those with chronic medical conditions are at highest risk.
Q: How is flu spread?
A: It spreads when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks and the virus is sent into the air.
Q: How soon can I get sick from the flu?
A: It takes one to four days -- on average two days -- for a person exposed to the flu virus to develop symptoms.
Q: How do I protect myself?
A: Get the flu shot; also wash your hands often and don't touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
Q: How many people get sick or die from the flu?
A: It's estimated 10 percent to 20 percent of U.S. residents get the flu and 114,000 are hospitalized each season for flu-related complications. Typically, it kills about 36,000 people in the United States each year, but experts say this year could be worse.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search).