Young and old are more likely to encounter a severe cold. This is why doctors think it happened

An earlier than usual flu season is hitting Canadian hospitals

Canadians are already sick enough with the seasonal flu to be hospitalized, doctors say with advice on who is most at risk and what that means for the party gathering.

"Right now we're starting to look at the effects of the flu on certain populations, especially very young children and very old people, where they get sick enough to need to come to the hospital," said Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of the division of infectious diseases at Queen's University and Kingston Health Sciences Centre.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, air travel has decreased. It's one of the alleged reasons why influenza disappeared, said Evans.

The flu virus needs a human host traveling between the southern and northern hemispheres to gain a foothold during winters at both ends of the planet, according to influenza experts.

For about 100 years, doctors have known that the youngest and the oldest are most at risk for serious colds. Why is not yet known, but there are a number of possible reasons — including what strains were circulating when you were first exposed.

The generation effect is explored

Canadian and international studies in human and animal models show that the first strains of the flu virus you infect tend to establish or develop the immune system. The result is that our immune system responds best to the original strain of flu infection it encounters.

"That's why we believe that parents who were mostly exposed to H1N1 didn't do as well during an H3N2 year as we did this year," said Evans.

The 2009 H1N1 pandemic also continues to affect how younger people get the flu.

Those aged 13 and under were just as likely to catch H1N1 after 2009, just as their grandparents were in their childhood, said Evans.

If so, today's children may be more susceptible to severe illness from the flu than the generation of their parents who first encountered the H3N2 strain.

Evans added that older people may have more severe outcomes from the flu due to underlying problems such as heart disease, lung disease or treatment for cancer.

The youngest has not yet been revealed

Another reason young kids are getting colds and RSV this year: Recent pandemic public health measures mean those under the age of two never see the flu at all and preschoolers haven't had it or any other respiratory virus. known as respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, for many seasons.

"The immune boost that they got from some of the previous exposure in the previous year is gone so they tend to get infected more," Evans said.

Dr Upton Allen, head of infectious diseases at Sick Children's Hospital in Toronto, points out several other possibilities.

One of them is a type of flu virus that is mainly circulating. Officially called Influenza A H3N2, which Allen says may be linked to a more severe illness.

Also, our immune system is considered weakest at the extremes of life.

"Most kids who get the flu will have a mild flu, but some people can have a severe one," says Allen. 

If a child is breathing very fast, has trouble breathing, is weak, doesn't wake up or respond then it may indicate a more severe attack. "Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room," says Allen.

The Public Health Agency of Canada reported fewer than five influenza-related deaths among those aged 16 and under for the week ending November 19.

"Each year the number of deaths is generally in the single digits," for that age group in Canada, Allen said.

Doctor's holiday flu forecast

Marie Tarrant, a professor in the Okanagan school of nursing at the University of British Columbia, is concerned about the increase in flu hospitalizations for patients and the healthcare system.

"The flip side of that is just the burden it puts on the healthcare system that has been squeezed to its max over the last 2 ½ years."

People with the flu, RSV, and other infections have a "compounding effect" that is overwhelming hospitals, he said. Like Canada's National Immunization Advisory Committee, Tarrant recommends those aged six months and over qualify for the flu shot.

"The flu vaccine prevents about 40 to 60 percent of serious illnesses and hospitalizations," he says. "They work."

Evans has similar suggestions.

"Get your flu shot," he said. "It's not going to be for everyone, but it's going to keep a lot of people from getting infected and it's going to help, of course, take the pressure off that we're seeing in trying to get care to everyone."

It's also not too late to get a flu shot, doctors say.

Plus, flu season kicked off earlier than usual this year, which could (finally) offer some bright spots for the Christmas season. Evans said the seasonal flu usually clears up after a period of about six weeks. Canada is now about two weeks into the spike.

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