The flu season is here and it's the earliest start since 2003. With flu patients already turning up at local hospitals, it's especially important to take steps now to protect yourself and your loved ones.
OU Physicians stress that there is no need to panic, but they caution that influenza – the true flu – is an illness not to be taken lightly.
"Vaccination is still our best weapon against preventing the flu," said Dr. Robert Welliver, an infectious disease specialist with OU Physicians. "Fortunately, this year's vaccine protects against the strain of flu being seen most often thus far. So if you haven't been vaccinated, I would suggest there is never a better time to get a flu shot."
OU Medical Center has seen 13 cases of the flu since September. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that flu-like illness is widespread in five states already – Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.
According to the CDC, 5 percent to 20 percent of all Americans become ill with the flu each year. An estimated 200,000 are hospitalized for flu-related complications and 3,000 to 49,000 die.
Influenza is like the common cold with both illnesses being a highly contagious viral infection of the respiratory tract, but true influenza infection is considered much more dangerous because it causes more severe symptoms and can lead to fatal complications for some.
"Influenza typically has a very sudden onset with high fever, fatigue with minimal exertion, headache, body aches and cough," said Welliver. "Colds, on the other hand, tend to have a lower fever, very runny nose and a small amount of coughing without the severe body aches and fatigue that accompany influenza infection."
Although the flu and the common cold have similar symptoms, Welliver said the flu is much worse than the common cold and the symptoms are much more intense.
"If you live with someone or care for someone who is at increased risk, it is especially important that you be vaccinated," Welliver said.
Here are a couple of other flu prevention tips:
Try to avoid crowded areas. When going out in public and being in contact with a lot of people, though, hand sanitizers may be useful.
Adequate rest and good nutrition help your body's immune system fight off all of those things that can make you sick.
"If you see your doctor early, there is a test that can determine whether or not you have the flu. There are also medications that can help reduce the severity and duration of the illness when taken earlier enough. However, these medications are not approved for use in children under the age of one," Welliver said.
While antibiotics work well for bacterial infections, they do not work with influenza or other viral illnesses.
"Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help reduce the fever as well as the aches and pains that go along with many wintertime illnesses," Welliver added. "However, ibuprofen is generally not a good choice for someone who has been vomiting a lot. It is also important to be sure to give these medications only in the proper doses for age and weight. And don't give aspirin to children under the age of 19 who have the flu or other viral illnesses due to the risk of Reye's syndrome."
For infants younger than 2 months, OU Physicians warn that a fever is potentially a serious matter and should be evaluated immediately by the child's pediatrician or an emergency room physician.
If the flu brings with it vomiting or diarrhea, it is important to safeguard against dehydration. Try to encourage frequent, small amounts of fluids. If a child is still vomiting even with small, frequent quantities of fluid, it is time to call the family doctor or pediatrician.
"When the patient is no longer vomiting and his or her appetite begins to return, you can start reintroducing other foods while still avoiding dairy products for a few days. Clear broths, crackers, toast, rice and applesauce are a good place to start," Welliver said.
Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
Blue or purple discoloration of the lips
Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
Severe or persistent vomiting
Flu-like symptoms that improve, but then return with fever or worse cough
In an infant or very young child, no urine output for 10-12 hours
For current information about the flu, including flu facts, treatment, information about vaccinations and more, visit www.oumedicine.com/flu.
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