What is seasonal influenza (flu)?
Seasonal influenza, commonly called “the flu,” is caused by influenza viruses, which infect the nose, throat and lungs. The flu can cause severe illness and life-threatening complications. In the United States flu season usually occurs November through March, with 5 to 20 percent of the population getting the flu and more than 200,000 people hospitalized with complications (bacterial pneumonia, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.) Older people, young children, pregnant women, and people with certain health conditions are especially high risk for serious flu complications.
The best way to prevent seasonal flu is by getting a seasonal flu vaccination each year. Everyone six months and older should get vaccinated against the flu every year as soon as vaccine becomes available in their community. Immunity sets in about two weeks after vaccination, and helps stop the spread of disease to those too young or unable to be vaccinated.
What are the symptoms of the flu?
The flu can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. The flu is different from a cold. The flu usually comes on suddenly. People who have the flu often feel some or all of these symptoms:
• Fever or feeling feverish/chills. Not everyone with flu will have a fever.
• Cough and/or sore throat
• Runny or stuffy nose
• Headaches and muscle or body aches
• Fatigue (tiredness)
• Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.
Many people use the term “stomach flu” to describe illnesses with nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. These symptoms can be caused by many different viruses, bacteria or even parasites. While vomiting, diarrhea, and being nauseous or “sick to your stomach” can sometimes be related to the flu, these problems are rarely the main symptoms of influenza. The flu is a respiratory disease and not a stomach or intestinal disease.
When is the flu contagious?
Adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Children may pass the virus for longer than seven days. Symptoms start one to four days after the virus enters the body. That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick.
People with flu can spread it to others up to six feet away by coughing or sneezing, so take care to cover your coughs and sneezes; wash your hands often, and/or use hand sanitizer; and do not share items with sick household members-linens, towels, eating utensils, etc. The virus can survive on objects (phones, tables, doorknobs, keyboards, etc.) for up to 48 hours.
What is the treatment for the flu?
Most people with the flu do not need medical care or antiviral drugs. Stay home, rest and drink plenty of fluids. If you must leave home, for example to get medical care, wear a facemask if you have one, or cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your sleeve, and wash your hands often to keep from spreading flu to others.
If you are in a high risk group and develop flu symptoms, it’s best for you to contact your doctor. Remind them about your high risk status for flu and they will decide whether influenza testing and possible treatment are needed. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs that can treat the flu; these drugs work better the sooner they are started.
What are emergency warning signs? Go to the Emergency Room if these occur:
• Fast breathing or trouble breathing or bluish skin color
• Unable to eat or not drinking enough fluids or with considerably fewer wet diapers
• Not waking up or not interacting, or being too irritable and not wanting to be held
• Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough
• Fever with a rash
• Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
• Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
• Sudden dizziness or being abnormally confused
• Severe or persistent vomiting
• Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough
How long should I stay home if I’m sick?
CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone, without need for fever-reducing medicine. The exception is to get medical care.
Note from Lincoln County Health Department: As of Jan. 10, 2013, Lincoln County has had 252 lab confirmed cases of influenza reported this season, with all but 27 being Type B Influenza. The majority of the sick are children age five to 14 years, with next number of ill being in 25-to-49-years age group (same as has been reported statewide). These are only those that were sick enough to go to the hospital ER, Urgent Care or physician-only the tip of the iceberg!
For more information on Influenza, go to the CDC.gov website, or contact your physician or the Lincoln County Health Department at 636-528-6117.
Submitted by Donna Walton, RN, BSN
Lincoln County Health Department, 5 Health Department Drive