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8 things you need to know about the deadly influenza virus

Starting today, you will have to wear a surgical mask if you want to visit patients at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center as the hospital puts in place new measures to guard against the spread of influenza.

Other local hospitals are also taking precautions because they fear the illness is growing worse in Los Angeles County, even as cases have begun to decline elsewhere in the state.

Here are some other things you need to know about this season’s flu:

How bad is it?

Pretty bad. So far, California has recorded 95 flu-related deaths in people under age 65. Health officials say it’s likely another 51 deaths were also due to flu, but they’re still checking out those cases. If they’re confirmed, the total would be 146.

How does that compare to years past?

Worse than last year, when only nine deaths had been confirmed by this point. That entire season ended with a total of 106 deaths.

What makes this year so different?

The season ramped up a little early, health officials say. At Cedars, for example, doctors have seen a steady increase in patients since mid December. Another reason is that one of the primary strains out there is “swine flu,” also known as H1N1.

Didn’t that strain cause a pandemic?

Yes, in 2009 and 2010 it contributed to the deaths of thousands of people around the world. The strain affects younger people more often than many flu strains.

Are younger people most at risk?

In general, the very young, seniors and people with immune systems that have already been weakened by other illnesses or other medical conditions are most at risk of a severe flu.

So are we all doomed to come down with it?

No, especially if you get a flu shot. This year’s vaccine has proven to be a good match for this year’s bug. The overwhelming majority of people who have died so far as a result of the flu had not been vaccinated.

Can’t the vaccine itself make you sick?

Nope. Doctors say the shot does not contain any live virus. The nasal spray does contain a version of the live virus and can cause some cold-like symptoms, but it will not give you the flu. The Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention recommends that all people 6 months and older get vaccinated. Although there is not a 100% guarantee that you won’t get sick, officials say, it should keep the symptoms from becoming severe.

Is it too late to get a flu shot or nasal spray vaccination?

There is still time, but you had better get cracking; it takes about 10 days for the body to build up resistance to the virus, officials say. Call your doctor, visit a health clinic or even a drugstore.

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