When people get the flu, it hits them suddenly,” says Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, medical director for immunization and medical advisor for health literacy and communications at the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH). “They feel like they have been hit by a Mack truck.”
Although the influenza virus is tiny — only one-thousandth the width of a human hair — the rapid onset of fever, chills and body aches that signal the arrival of the flu can have a major and debilitating impact. People with these symptoms should immediately call their doctors, says Dillaha, since anti-flu medications like Tamiflu can help shorten the length and intensity of the illness if taken within the first 48 hours. After that, their effectiveness is questionable. “Call early so you can get it early,” she says.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 200,000 flu patients are admitted to U.S. hospitals annually. And depending upon the effectiveness of vaccination efforts and the severity of the circulating virus strains, between 3,000-49,000 people will die. Last season, the virus took the lives of 109 Arkansans.
One of the ways in which influenza attacks is to kill the cells lining our airways, giving the virus easier access to its host — us — and causing coughing and respiratory issues. This leaves damage that also makes us more susceptible to other invaders, like bacterial pneumonia, which is “a big killer of people who get the flu,” says Dillaha.
If you start to improve and then get worse again, she adds, you may be dealing with a secondary infection like pneumonia and should get medical help, as should anyone who is having difficulty breathing. People with chronic conditions, like diabetes or heart disease, should also get immediate care if the symptoms related to their conditions worsen.
In terms of prevention, common courtesy and an awareness of good hygiene can go a long way toward controlling the spread of the virus:
- Wash your hands frequently, whether you are sick or healthy, and especially when you are in a public environment.m(Alcohol-based, portable hand cleansers like “Purell” can be effective when soap and water aren’t available.)
- Cough into your sleeve or the crook of your arm; researchers have discovered it spreads fewer germs.
- Don’t re-use tissues. If you blow your nose into a tissue, use it only once and throw it away. (And remember to wash your hands afterward)
- Use fist bumps instead of handshakes as greetings.
- Stay away from sick people. This can be tougher than it sounds, especially if that person is in your family or workplace. Also, a person with the flu can spread the virus for a day or two before the onset of symptoms — all the more reason towash your hands!
- If you are the sick person, stay home. ‘Nuff said.
However, the best strategy against the flu is to get an annual flu vaccine. This not only benefits the vaccinated individual, says Dillaha, but also the most vulnerable people in your community.
Because the vaccine isn’t effective for children under 6 months old, young infants depend on their families and caregivers to keep them safe. Pregnant women and people with immune systems compromised from chemotherapy or disease are also at high risk, since their immune systems may not fully respond to the vaccine. “They need the people around them to get immunized to help protect them,” says Dillaha.
The flu vaccine is widely available throughout the state. The American Lung Association sponsors www.fluvaccinefinder.org, which uses zip codes to provide information for nearby clinics offering flu and other adult vaccinations.
Flu season begins in autumn, peaks during the winter and often runs through spring. “And we had a very extended season last year,” Dillaha says. “So while October and November is really when we want people to get their immunizations, it’s not too late to get it now!”
To learn more and get the free materials to lead a flu prevention workshop in your community, go to the Arkansas Immunization Action Coalition’s website www.immunizearkansas.com and click the “Let’s Talk about Flu” link.
A.D. Lively is a Little Rock-based freelance writer.