science of us

So, How Contagious Is This Year’s Flu?

This year’s flu is no fun. Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Even though all we want to do right now is focus our energy on the Olympics (and more specifically, that insane triple axel), we can’t stop thinking about this year’s deadly — and ongoing — flu season. We are constantly inundated with articles about people succumbing to flu-related illnesses (or losing limbs because of the virus), and on Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that one in ten deaths currently happening in the U.S. are a result of the flu. Yikes.

So, we keep wondering how contagious this flu actually is — and what we can do to avoid catching it. Luckily, Dr. Arnold Monto, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, was able to offer us some insight.

First off, what’s with this flu?
Even though this year’s strain is pretty horrible, it’s worth noting that we’ve seen it before. This particular strain of influenza A isn’t anything new per se; it’s just worse than the other strains we see a bit more often. “We know from past experience that this subtype, which has actually been around since 1968, is the one that causes the most complications,” Monto explained to the Cut.

So if it’s not new … then why is it causing so much damage?
The problem with this particular strain of influenza A is just how much it’s actually spreading, according to Monto. “It is not unexpected that we see hospitalizations, especially in those who are in defined risk groups, namely people with underlying conditions, older individuals, and the young,” the doctor said. “What is unusual this year is that it’s spreading pretty effectively, and right now it’s pretty hard to say exactly why that is — especially since we had the same subtype in much of the United States last year.”

Okay … so does that mean it’s more contagious than other flu strains?
Nope! The doctor explained to the Cut that this strain is “no different from any influenza in terms of the way it spreads.” So in other words, it’s just as contagious as other forms of the flu. One reason this strain is so widespread this flu season is that there may be a lower immunity to influenza A than other strains in the general population. Otherwise, it’s still transmitted through “large droplets” (basically when people are close together and cough and sneeze on one another, how fun) and surfaces.

Fine. How do we avoid it, then?
Avoiding the flu pretty much goes back to the common sense teachings of when you were a kid. You know the drill: Wash your hands, avoid sick people, and stay home when you’re sick. But of course, the best way to avoid getting the flu is … drum roll … to get the flu vaccine! “There’s still time to get vaccinated,” Monto said. “It would have been better to get it early, but the vaccine not only contains this subtype — but other subtypes which might continue spreading until April.”

But how long does this strain of the flu stay in your system? (Or rather, how long can we stay home to binge the Olympics when we’re sick?)
According to the doctor, this strain is (again) much like other strains. So in general, the acute illness can last four to five days, but the cough can unfortunately linger for weeks. And beyond that, it can take a while to fully snap back from the flu, since “it really is debilitating, especially if you have a full-blown case.” But by and large, people are usually only contagious for five days at the most (and maybe a bit longer if they’re younger). The doctor recommends staying home from work for three to five days if you’re sick. So that’s just enough time to catch up on some figure skating, we’d say.

So, How Contagious Is This Year’s Flu?