Got Flu? Here's the Latest on This Year's Flu Season and What You Can Do
By now you've heard that this winter's flu season is upon us-and it has hit with a vengeance across much of the nation. By early January, 47 states had reported widespread influenza activity to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
"The flu is supposed to be pretty vicious this year," stated Jason Chu, MD, pulmonologist with Washington Township Medical Foundation and a member of the medical staff at Washington Hospital in Fremont. "One of the most important things to keep in mind is that this is not a minor ailment. Typically, about 30,000 to 40,000 people die from complications of the flu each year."
The good news is there are steps you can take to help prevent the flu. If you do get sick, there are things you can do to keep from getting worse and avoid giving it to others.
"One of the most important things you should do to prevent the flu is get a flu shot, and it's not too late to do it now," added Dr. Chu.
The CDC recommends that people get vaccinated against the flu as long as influenza viruses are circulating, typically until April. By early January, tests reported to the CDC were showing that the primary flu virus circulating this year is influenza A (H3N2).
"Most (91%) of the influenza viruses that have been analyzed are like the viruses included in the 2012-13 influenza vaccine. The match between the vaccine virus and circulating viruses is one factor that impacts how well the vaccine works," the CDC reports on its Web site.
"The flu is a respiratory illness that is usually mild but can become severe, depending on other conditions the person may have," said Dr. Chu. "In elderly people with additional respiratory problems, it can be more serious."
People often confuse the flu with a cold or other respiratory ailment. There are some key symptoms that should alert you to the possibility that what you are suffering is the flu. It hits you suddenly, usually with a high fever, chills, muscle aches, weakness and respiratory symptoms, such as a cough or sore throat. If the virus affects your lungs, you may have trouble breathing.
"Young children who get the flu often have more subtle signs," cautioned Dr. Chu. "They may breathe faster than normal, feel irritable, drink fewer liquids, and even vomit. For older people who are suffering from flu symptoms, if they have increased difficulty breathing and seem confused, it is very important they see a doctor as soon as possible."
Because influenza is a virus, there is not a lot you can do to treat it except to let it runs its course. Drink lots of fluids and get plenty of rest. Antibiotics are ineffective and should not be taken, unless you get an infection in addition to the flu, Dr. Chu advises.
To prevent the flu or to keep it from getting worse, you can take an antiviral medication, which is available by prescription from your physician. Doctors prescribe a higher dosage if the medication is taken to treat the illness, rather than prevent it.
"The flu spreads through droplets that come from the respiratory system," explained Dr. Chu." So, if you have the flu and you touch your nose or eyes, or if you cough, sneeze, or send small droplets into the air while you are talking, the droplets can contaminate surfaces that are then touched by others. In turn, they may touch their nose or mouth."
"The majority of flu is transmitted by kids from the close environment of school and brought back home to their families. Once you've been exposed, it only takes one to four days before you get sick."
To discourage the transmission of the flu virus, the most important thing you can do is to clean your hands often with soap and water or a hand sanitizer. Be sure to wash your thumbs and the webbing between your thumb and fingers-areas that are most often missed.
You can also avoid spreading flu germs by covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze and staying home when you are sick. To avoid getting the flu in the first place, stay away from others who may already have it.
Dr. Chu reported that more than two-thirds of patients coming to his office right now have some type of respiratory problem. Flu is just one of the ailments that can have respiratory involvement during the cold and wet months of the year. People may also suffer from bronchitis or pneumonia.
"Respiratory problems most often affect the bronchial tubes, but if the problem gets into the air sacs of the lungs, called the alveoli, it becomes pneumonia," he explains.
Every year, more than 60,000 people die from complications of pneumonia. People with other respiratory problems, like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are especially vulnerable.