Peak flu season is coming

November 11, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Get vaccinated for flu season, says Dr. Laura Henderson, medical director at Downtown Urgent Care in Hagerstown

It might not be the subject of fundraisers and walk-a-thons.

But make no mistake, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Like cancer, AIDS, heart disease and a host of other medical maladies, influenza can be a killer.

On average, flu claims the lives of 36,000 Americans each year and the death toll can double in severe seasons.

Combined with pneumonia, influenza is the nation's fifth leading cause of death in individuals 65 years of age and older.

In addition, flu and its related complications result in approximately 226,000 hospitalizations and costs the economy about $12 billion annually. 

But, to many people, flu is considered nothing more than a serious cold — a nuisance that can't be prevented.

It's time to elevate that conversation, the CDC believes, and it's urging changes in the way society views and deal with the virus that disrupts families, schools and workplaces every year.

According to the American Lung Association's Influenza Prevention Program, influenza is an illness of the respiratory system and muscles caused by a virus.

In most people, the infection results in fever, cough, headache, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches and lack of energy. Stomach symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, also can occur.

Influenza viruses spread in respiratory droplets caused by coughing and sneezing. They usually spread from person to person, though sometimes people become infected by touching something contaminated with the influenza virus and transmitting it to their mouth, eyes or nose.

While the influenza season varies — starting as early as October and running until April or May — the peak months are usually January and February, said Dr. Laura Henderson, medical director at Downtown Urgent Care in Hagerstown.

Henderson said presently "we have not really noted an outbreak in the urgent care centers."

The best tool for preventing an outbreak and fighting the illness, she said, is to get vaccinated.

"Receiving the flu shot is the most important way of preventing infection and subsequent outbreaks," Henderson said.

Each year, the top three strains of concern are included in the seasonal flu vaccine, she said. This year, it includes influenza A (H1N1), influenza A (H3N3) and an influenza B strain.

The flu vaccine contains a killed virus that triggers the body to generate infection-fighting antibodies.

Henderson recommends everyone 6 months of age and older receive a flu shot "if they do not have a history of an adverse reaction to the vaccine or a serious allergy to the components of the vaccine."

It is especially important for those who are at a higher risk of developing influenza-related complications to be vaccinated, she said.

This includes adults 65 years of age and older, children and pregnant women. In addition, individuals with chronic diseases, such as lung disease (asthma, emphysema), heart disease (coronary and congenital) or kidney disease should receive the flu shot.

Henderson recommended  individuals should check with their physician to see whether they are in a high-risk group.

Additionally, those who come into close contact with high-risk groups should get a flu shot, not only to help protect themselves against influenza, but to help avoid spreading the disease to more vulnerable populations.  This includes caregivers and healthcare personnel.

In an effort to reduce the incidence of influenza, from mid-September through the end of March, patients admitted to Meritus Medical Center who are 50 years of age and older are assessed for pneumonia, sepsis and respiratory failure, officials noted.

Nurses explain the benefit of the pneumonia/influenza vaccine, with the majority of patients receiving the vaccination with the first 24 hours of admission.

The medical center estimates that 95 percent of high-risk patients have been reached with flu vaccinations.

"Education is always a wonderful tool in helping to limit or control outbreaks," Henderson said.

Tips for avoiding influenza:

Dr. Laura Henderson, medical director at Downtown Urgent Care in Hagerstown, offers these tips for the prevention and spread of influenza:

1. Get vaccinated.

2. Always thoroughly wash your hands.

3. Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing.

4. If you are sick with a fever, stay home until the fever has been gone for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications.

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