With so many headlines regarding this year’s flu season, here are 9 things you need to know about this year’s flu season.
- Flu is contagious and serious. It is a viral (not) bacterial infection- which means antibiotics do not work for this- affecting the respiratory system, which includes your nose, throat and lungs. Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, aches, chills, and fatigue. In some cases they can also have vomiting and diarrhea.
- Flu is everywhere in the United States. As of January 13, 2013, 48 states had reported widespread flu with 5249 hospitalizations from this year’s flu, which is considered an epidemic.
- Some groups are particularly vulnerable to the flu. a) Children who are younger than five years of age, especially those younger than two years- tragically there have been 29 pediatric deaths so far; b) Adults over aged 65 years and older, as 9 out of 10 flu-related deaths in the United States occur in this group of patients.- Individuals over the age of 65 years are being hospitalized more often than other groups—they are accounting for 49.6 percent of all hospitalizations and c) pregnant women. Pregnant women have the double concern of their own health and that of the baby. Flu can increase the potential for miscarriage and/or preterm birth. A Norwegian study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that pregnant women who are not vaccinated had a higher risk of fetal death than those who were vaccinated. d) Persons with chronic health conditions, like diabetes, heart disease, and asthma can often have problems with the flu. In many cases, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, a lot of these are undetected or haven’t been addressed and are unknown to the patient themselves; the flu can wreak havoc under these conditions.
- Prevention is key to stop the spread of virus. Flu is spread by saliva, nasal secretions and airborne droplets (occurs when a person does not cover their mouth or nose during coughing or sneezing) from an infected individual. These droplets are found on frequently-touched surfaces such as doors, soap dispensers, bathrooms, toys, countertops, and hands of the person who is sick and can live up to 8 hours on hard surfaces.
- To prevent flu prevent remember to avoid contact with sick people and increase your distance from people who are infected.
- If you or your child gets sick with something that looks like flu, limit your contact with others as much as possible to help prevent spreading disease. Stay home except to seek medical care. Keep your kid away from school for at least 24 hours after the fever is gone. Fever should be gone without having to use aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen or other types of fever-reducing medicine.
- Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze. This will block the spread of droplets from your mouth and nose that contain these germs. Wash your hands with soap and water and avoid touching your face. If soap and water are not available use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Get your vaccine! We Latinos need to improve our vaccination rates for the flu. According to the U.S. Office of minority health, last year 38.8 percent of Latinos were vaccinated vs. 49 percent of non-Latino groups. Vaccines are safe but it takes up to two weeks for the body to an immune response that reduces your chance of getting the flu or lessens the severity of the flu. Vaccination can make the difference between hospitalization for flu complications versus recovering at home. There is no official shortage of the vaccine so go and get it. I made sure my family did. It is never too late!
- See your doctor if you think you have the flu! Antiviral drugs can be prescribed for flu cases but they work best if you use it early– typically within 48 hours. Even if you miss this window, the drugs may still help if you have a high risk medical condition such as asthma, chronic lung disease, heart disease, sickle-cell, diabetes, kidney disorders, liver disorders, weakened immune systems, and neurological disabilities. However, it is important to note that antivirals are not a substitute for vaccines. The best way to treat flu is to prevent it. Flu is like a bad roller coaster ride, antivirals may serve as a seat belt to keep you safe but it will not stop the ride.
Be proactive and prevent getting the flu. Do as I and many busy Latinos did for my family and me to survive the flu season. Get vaccinated, wash your hands frequently and carry a bottle of sanitizer in your pocket. Flu season typically lasts 12- 13 weeks. We are halfway through.
Dr. Joseph Sirven is a first-generation Cuban-American. He is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Neurology and was past Director of Education for Mayo Clinic Arizona. He is editor-in-chief of epilepsy.com and has served U.S. and global governmental agencies including the Institute of Medicine, NASA, FAA, NIH and CDC.