The annual flu season is upon us. It generally starts in October and lasts through April, with cases peaking in January or February.
Influenza causes serious illness that can last a week or longer, and kills thousands of Americans every year. So far this flu season, 13 cases have been confirmed in Arizona, which is slightly higher than this time last year. Experts say the true number is probably higher since not all people visit their doctor when they are sick.
Since it is hard to determine when there will be a severe flu season, physicians recommend everyone older than six months be vaccinated annually. The flu vaccine is safe, and has been given to hundreds of millions of people for more than 50 years. You cannot contract the flu from the flu vaccine.
"Protect yourself and your loved ones: get vaccinated," said David Keckich, M.D., infectious diseases specialist at Verde Valley Medical Center and Verde Valley Medical Clinic. "Let your doctor know if you get a cough and fever with body aches; wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough; and stay home from work or school if you get sick."
Verde Valley Medical Center will monitor cases of flu and respiratory syncytial virus. Once numbers start rising, the hospital will implement visitation restrictions for children under the age of 12 on the clinical units for the health and safety of its patients and employees. "Suspect" or "confirmed" influenza cases are placed in isolation to prevent the spread of the illness to others.
There are certain groups of people experts consider at high risk of developing flu-related complications if they do not get vaccinated. This includes the elderly, pregnant women, small children and people who suffer from chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease. Complications can include pneumonia, bronchitis, or sinus or ear infections.
The flu virus changes every year, which is why you need a new vaccine every year. This year's vaccine includes protection against three or four strains depending on what your healthcare provider has available, including H1N1. If you don't like shots, and you are a healthy person between 2 and 49 years old, you may get the vaccine as a nasal spray. The vaccine is generally available by October, but you can get vaccinated any time during the flu season. It takes up to two weeks after being vaccinated for your body to become immune to the flu.
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness, affecting the nose, lungs and throat. This is NOT the common stomach virus. The flu is different from a cold and usually comes on quickly with most people experiencing high fevers. Seasonal flu symptoms include a cough, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches and tiredness. Serious flu cases can lead to hospitalization or even death.
Remember, besides getting a vaccine you can take preventative steps every day to help avoid catching the flu. It is important to wash your hands with soap and water often to reduce the spread of germs. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth to help prevent germs from spreading. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work and school. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water. If possible, try to stay away from people who are sick.
If you do get sick, there are medications that can treat the flu illness. Do not go to work or school so you don't spread influenza to others. If you are around others, cover your mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Experts believe this is how the flu viruses spread. It can be spread to others as far as six feet away.
All in all, though, experts say the best protection for everyone during the flu season is to get vaccinated each year.
For more information, talk with your healthcare provider. You also can call 1-800-232-4636 or visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's website at cdc.gov/flu.
Diana Rolland, R.N., is the director of Flagstaff Medical Center's Infection Prevention Department. Karen Smith is infection control coordinator at Verde Valley Medical Center.