Fearing the flu? Here's what to do...
If the news of 13 flu-related deaths in North Carolina has you thinking of getting the flu vaccine, you’re a little late.
However, Dr. Ward Robinson hastily adds, go ahead and get the vaccine if you haven’t already done so, because it might still protect you from the flu epidemic that’s been making headlines.
“This is not the optimal time to get the flu vaccine — the optimal time has passed,” said Robinson, medical director for the Guilford County Department of Public Health.
“The time to get the vaccine is when it comes out, which was in September. If you keep waiting till you hear the alarms go off, you’re waiting too long. When the virus is circulating in the community, that’s not the time to get the vaccine.”
Nonetheless, Robinson still recommends getting the vaccine.
“There’s still ample benefit from getting the vaccine now,” he said. “But remember, when you get the vaccine, it takes several days to two weeks to get an antibody response that’s protective.”
So if you get the vaccine today and you’re exposed to the influenza virus tomorrow, you won’t be protected. But if you’re exposed two weeks from today, there’s a likelihood you will be protected.
“It’s my belief that a lot of the (preventative) recommendations you hear about coughing into your sleeve and washing your hands are helpful, but they pale in comparison to what the vaccine will provide,” Robinson added.
In addition to the vaccine, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers the following recommendations for flu prevention:
•Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
•If you are sick with flu-like illness, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone, except to get medical care or for other necessities. (Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.)
•While sick, limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them.
•Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
•Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
•Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way.
•Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs.
Because influenza is not a reportable disease — “The cases reported are the extremes, the deaths,” Robinson said — the exact number of flu cases in North Carolina this flu season is not known. Anecdotally, though, the number appears to be high.
“I’m hearing that the emergency rooms are very busy, and patients are lined up at doctors’ offices,” Robinson said.
Common flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people may also have vomiting and/or diarrhea.
If you get the flu or have flu-like symptoms, health officials recommend getting a prescription for an antiviral drug such as Tamiflu. According to the CDC, antiviral drugs can make the illness milder, shorten the time you’re sick and prevent serious flu complications, but treatment must begin within 48 hours of getting sick for best results.
“And all of the over-the-counter stuff probably won’t help,” Robinson said.
The CDC does not recommend going to the emergency room unless you are very sick, because if you go there and don’t have the flu, you might catch it from someone who does.
If you do have the flu, the CDC recommends you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or other necessities. And if you must go out, wear a facemask if you have one, and cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue. You should also wash your hands often to keep from spreading flu germs to others.
In the meantime, Robinson has some advice for you for next year’s flu season.
“We talk a lot about flu every year, but it becomes very, very simple — just get the vaccine every year,” he said. “There’s plenty of information out there about how safe and effective it is.”
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•If you have the flu, you should stay home, follow your doctor’s orders, and watch for signs that you need immediate medical attention.
•All types of flu can cause:
— Coughing and/or sore throat.
— Runny or stuffy nose.
— Headaches and/or body aches.
•Most people recover after about a week without lasting effects.
•Seek emergency medical care if you or a family member has any of these symptoms:
— Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
— Sudden dizziness.
— Severe or persistent vomiting.
— Purple or blue discoloration of the lips.
— Signs of dehydration, such as feeling dizzy when standing, being unable to urinate, or (in infants) crying without shedding tears.
— Seizures (for example, uncontrolled convulsions).