Flu season typically peaks in January or February and early data shows that this year’s flu season could be severe. Children, pregnant women, seniors, and people with health conditions and disabilities are at increased risk of getting the flu and of complications. Here’s what experts have to say about this year’s flu and how to best protect your family.
An overview of the flu
Seasonal flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by flu viruses. It spreads between people and can cause mild to severe illness. According to flu.gov, most experts believe that you get the flu when a person with the flu coughs, sneezes or talks and droplets containing their germs land in your mouth or nose. You can also get the flu by touching a surface or object that has the flu virus on it and then touching your mouth, eyes or nose. All types of flu have similar symptoms. These symptoms include:
- 100oF or higher fever or feeling feverish (not everyone with the flu has a fever)
- Cough and/or sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Headaches and/or body aches
- Nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea (most common in children)
Most people who get the flu feel much better within one or two weeks. Most healthy adults can infect others one day before symptoms develop and five to seven days after symptoms appear. Some people, especially young children and people with weakened immune systems, might be contagious for a longer period. You can treat flu symptoms with and without medication. Over-the-counter medications may relieve some flu symptoms but will not make you less contagious. Your health care provider may prescribe antiviral medications to make your illness milder and prevent serious complications.
Note: The flu and the common cold have similar symptoms and it can be difficult to tell the difference between them. Your health care provider can give you/your loved one a test within the first few days of the illness to determine whether or not it’s the flu. In general, the flu is worse than the common cold. Symptoms such as fever, body aches, tiredness and cough are more common and intense with the flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose.
Warning signs immediate medical attention is needed
The Virginia Department of Health advises that although some people are at greater risk of serious flu-related complications, it is possible for otherwise-healthy people to develop severe illness. Experiencing any of the emergency warning signs listed below means that you or your child should seek medical evaluation without delay.
Emergency warning signs in children:
- Fast breathing or trouble breathing
- Bluish skin color
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Not waking up or not interacting
- Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
- Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough
- Fever with a rash
Emergency warning signs in adults:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Sudden dizziness
- Severe or persistent vomiting
Best ways to avoid the flu
According to Dr. Linda Meloy, general pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU (CHoR), the influenza vaccination is the best way to protect yourself and your children from the seasonal flu and it’s not too late to get vaccinated this season. Your family doctor or local pharmacy will have information about this year’s vaccine (available as a shot or a nasal spray). The vaccine finder can also help you find locations in your area offering the flu vaccine. Call ahead to make sure the location you go to has the ability to vaccinate children.
Vaccination is especially important for children, as they are more susceptible to the illness due to less immunity from prior exposure, smaller airways and close contact with other children. Children 6-months-old and older can receive the flu vaccine. Unfortunately, infants younger than 6 months cannot receive the vaccine, they are especially susceptible and most severely affected when they contract the flu. In order to protect your bundle of joy younger than 6 months, it is especially important for all members of the family who might have contact with the infant to receive the flu vaccine. Additionally, breastfeeding is very important, as it passes some of the mother’s antibodies to the newborn, offering them more protection from the flu.
Dr. Meloy also recommends doing your best to avoid people who are sick as a major method of flu prevention. This can be particularly difficult when children are in school or daycare so it’s extremely important to teach children to wash their hands frequently and avoid putting their fingers in their mouth. Also, teach children to avoid spreading germs by covering their nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing and properly disposing of tissues.
Tips for preventing the spread of infection at home
Lark Bailey, a registered nurse specializing in infection control at CHoR, recommends the following cleaning and sanitizing techniques that can reduce flu virus in the home and limit the spread of infection through surface contact:
- When cleaning to sanitize (remove bacteria, germs, etc.), be sure to read the label on your cleaning product. You will find a “kill time” on the label that tells you how long to leave the cleaner to dry. So, if you are wiping down counters in your kitchen do not wipe and immediately dry the countertop as the disinfectant needs time to kill germs on the surface.
- Remember to clean the most high-risk areas. Kitchen surfaces and tables are a must, as these are places where food is eaten and prepared. Any germs left in these areas get a free ride to our bodies on our foods. Bathrooms are also essential. Be sure to clean faucet and toilet handles and door and cabinet knobs.
- Consider adding a paper towel roll holder in your most used bathroom rather than hanging a hand towel.
- Wash bath toys that make it into your child’s mouth and other “mouthed” toys in the top rack of your dishwasher.
In general, if you are caring for a loved one with the flu, be sure they get plenty of rest, drink clear liquids to prevent dehydration, and closely follow the recommendations of your health care provider. Keep yourself and others in your home healthy by creating a separate sick room and following these additional illness-protection steps.
An overview of the flu: flu.gov
Warning signs immediate medical attention is needed: www.vdh.virginia.gov/epidemiology/flu/Basics.htm