If You Think This Flu Was Bad, Just Wait...

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Your joints ache, you're bathed in sweat and it feels as if your head is being crushed in a vise... You may feel like you're dying — or even wish that you were — but the good news is that the flu that is widespread in two thirds of the United States and much of Europe is unlikely to kill you. The bad news is that the next one might. Or the one after that. The current outbreak is a far cry from the killer pandemic of 1918 that killed 40 million people worldwide — in fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the incidence of flu is neither higher nor more serious than in previous years, despite the intensified media coverage.

"But there certainly will be another pandemic sometime in the future," says TIME medical correspondent Christine Gorman. "Although an unprecedented expansion of international travel brought on by World War I dramatically increased the impact of the 1918 outbreak, there were also lesser pandemics in 1957 and 1968." A pandemic occurs when a new strain of a virus emerges so quickly that human immune systems are caught unawares, and such outbreaks usually kill a large number of people. The first known pandemic occurred in 1580, and there have been 31 since.

Unlike in 1918, though, today the international medical community is watching the virus's every move. "There are surveillance sites all over the world studying any mutagenic shifts in the flu virus," says Gorman. "New strains are identified very quickly, and this year's vaccine is pretty closely matched with the dominant strain of flu out there." And then, of course, medical science has become more adept at diminishing the impact of the virus through treatment of more dangerous complications, such as pneumonia. Which means that we're a lot better prepared for a world war against flu than our forebears were in 1918. And hey, if you managed to read this far down, the chicken soup must be working.