If you've been hiding under a rock for the past week, you may have missed that influenza season is in full effect. We had historically low flu seasons the past 2 years, so this flu epidemic is undoubtedly worse than in recent years. More cases and possibly more severe illness are being reported coast to coast. According to Google trends, Kansas is just now in the midst of it's "spike". It has not yet peaked, but many experts are predicting the worst season in the past decade. In any case the flu is going to be with us well into February.
Is it time to panic? No, but you do need to take some common sense precautions when dealing with the flu.
How can I prevent the flu? Is it too late for the vaccine?
- If you haven't done so already, get your vaccine NOW. It takes 1-2 weeks for the vaccine to take effect, so if there is any chance it will be helpful it needs to be done yesterday - or preferably October! As I wrote previously, the flu vaccine is not 100% effective but it's safe and the best thing available to lower your risk or severity of illness. Preliminary data shows this year's flu vaccine to be a 99% match for Type A (which account for 80% of the circulating strains), but only 67% for Type B (20% of circulating strains).
- Your mom was right. Washing your hands frequently and thoroughly can help prevent the spread of germs, including the flu. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer works fine and is convenient, but soap and water may be even better.
- If a family member has the flu should I start Tamiflu? It depends! See below.
- Staying at home when reasonable (see below for who should see a doc) will lessen the chances you infect others.
If I get sick should I see the doctor? or the ER?
- Most people whom get flu-like symptoms do NOT need to rush to the doctor. Otherwise healthy, young to middle age people will typically fight off the flu virus without complication or the need for prescription medications.
- Several high high risk groups that are more susceptible to severe illness with the flu are the very young (less than age 2), older people (age 60+) and those with chronic diseases (especially lung diseases, low immune states, uncontrolled diabetes.).
- Although any case of the flu is miserable, "severe" worrisome symptoms would include shortness of breath, wheezing, fever lasting longer than 3 days, not tolerating any liquids by mouth for 24+ hours or passing out.
- If you do decide to see a doctor most patients can be handled in a primary care physician's office, but more severe cases may require an ER visit or hospitalization.
Do I need to take anti-viral medications (ie. Tamiflu)?
- FOR TREATMENT: The effectiveness of anti-viral medication in treatment of influenza is a controversial issue. At best it decreases the duration of symptoms by 1-2 days. Also, it must be started within the first 24-48 hours of symptoms to have any measurable effect. I think it’s a reasonable medication to try, but I only strongly recommend it to those at high-risk.
- FOR PREVENTION: If you have close contact with known, proven influenza, the Rx treatment for flu can also be used to lower risk of transmission (in theory at least). Not everyone whom is exposed needs preventive Tamiflu, but it should be considered in high risk groups.
W. Ryan Neuhofel, DO, MPH is the physician and owner of NeuCare Family Medicine; a Direct Primary Care medical practice. He is a board-certified Family Physician (American Board of Family Medicine) and Fellow-candidate in Wilderness Medicine.
Information contained here is intended for general health education only. All personal health and medical issues should be managed by a health professional.
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