Monday, January 21, 2013

A Worse Than Average Flu Season

Health officials in the U.S. are now reporting that the flu is active in 48 states and they are calling this a "worse-than-average flu season;" especially for the elderly.

The very young and the elderly are often the most susceptible to complications from flu such as dehydration and pneumonia which can be fatal if not treated quickly.

Flu can quickly spread in assisted living settings, board and care homes and skilled nursing facilities. Often these facilities will quarantine their residents and limit outside visitors in an effort to stop the spread and allow the ill to recover.  Please observe the warnings and don't make a bad situation worse.

Flu vaccine is a must for the elderly, even those who live alone and rarely venture outside their home. Visitors can bring the virus in if they are ill or have been recently exposed. The germs can be passed along on surfaces of things such as newspapers, mail, and groceries. The virus can live on surfaces like doorknobs, counter tops, grocery carts, toilet handles, etc. Hand washing and wiping down surfaces can help contain the virus.

Hand washing is an absolute necessity!! Those visiting or caring for any older person need to be vaccinated and take precautions. Cough into your elbow. Toss tissues after a single use. Wear a mask in public. And wash your hands frequently!

The flu is a respiratory illness composed of any combination of sore throat, cough, runny nose, elevated temperature, chills and body aches. It will typically last 4-10 days.  Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea may also accompany these symptoms, but by themselves don't constitute true flu virus. There are several GI viruses active at this time as well.

There are antivirals such as Tamiflu available, but they must be started in the first 48 hours. Often people don't recognize they have the flu until much later and the antivirals will be ineffective. This year's strain seems to be resistant to the antivirals as well.

Contact your primary care provider or seek medical care at an urgent care or mini-clinics if your symptoms worsen, you're over 50, you have a compromised immune system, or have chronic diseases such as diabetes or heart disease. Try not to go to an Emergency Room for flu symptoms. It is far more costly and ER's need to be available for true emergencies. There are plenty of other options for care.

If you experience difficulty breathing, chest pain, a fever of 102 degrees F or more, or are unable to consume liquids, seek immediate medical care.

Plenty of liquids are essential to avoid dehydration and to improve flu symptoms by flushing your system. Fluids can take many forms such as popcycles, ice chips, soups, broths, Jell-o, electrolyte solutions like Gatorade or Pediasure. Even just frequent sips of cold or warm water will help hydrate. This is especially important in the presence of fever and chills when the body will perspire and lose fluids through the skin. Crackers and toast can help keep the tummy calm and able to tolerate medications.

Chicken soup is often one of the best tolerated foods for colds, sore throats and flu. It can be mild, or even spiced up with a little black or white pepper to aid in decongestant efforts. Hot or warm liquids may go down much easier for severe sore throats. If not, try icy liquids which may actually offer a numbing effect.

Tylenol (acetaminophne) or ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin)  in age appropriate doses, will help reduce fever and body aches. Many cough, cold and flu formulas available over the counter also contain acetaminophen or ibuprofen, so be sure to account for this dose and don't overdose. Tylenol should not exceed 3000mg per 24 hours! Some formulas contain alcohol and/or high levels of sugar which may not be good for some.  Read the labels or ask the pharmacist for assistance.

Cough medicines can cause nausea. Hot tea with honey and lemon may be more effective and easier on the stomach. Keep your mouth moist with sips of liquids and perhaps some hard candies to suck on. 

The cough may actually linger for about 3 weeks after other symptoms are gone. Be patient. However, if you start to feel better and then get worse again, seek immediate medical attention.

Rest and sleep are essential to recovery. Stay in bed. Don't venture out in public and expose others. Quarantine yourself from the rest of the household as well to minimize exposure.

Remember, prevention is the best medicine. Get a flu shot. Wash your hands frequently. Avoid crowds and anyone who is ill. Take care and stay well!