EDUCATE YOURSELF: Everything you need to know about the flu
POSTED: Thursday, January 9, 2014 - 6:51pm
UPDATED: Thursday, January 9, 2014 - 7:01pm
With flu season ramping up in Texas, the Texas Department of State Health Services reminds people who haven’t gotten a flu shot yet this season not to put it off any longer.
The level of flu-like illness is currently classified as “high” in Texas, and medical providers are seeing an increase in flu in multiple parts of the state. Getting vaccinated is the best way for people to protect themselves and their families from the flu during the holiday season, when there is typically an increase in flu cases.
DSHS recommends everyone six months old and older get vaccinated. People should talk to their health care provider about the best type of flu vaccine for them. A nasal spray version is available for healthy people ages 2 to 49 who are not pregnant, and a high-dose vaccine is approved for people 65 and older.
Flu is a serious disease that kills an average of 23,600 Americans a year, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People over 65, pregnant women, young children and people with chronic health conditions are most at risk for complications, so it’s especially important for them to be vaccinated.
Getting vaccinated is the best way to stop the spread of the flu. Additionally, cover all coughs and sneezes, wash hands frequently with soap and water or use hand sanitizer, and stay home if sick.
DSHS commissioner, Dr.David Lakey, has provided tips to keep from getting the nasty sickness:
Wash hands frequently with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer;
- Get vaccinated
- Cover coughs and sneezes
- Stay home if sick
- Convince those around you to follow the steps above
This season’s flu vaccine is recommended for all people age six-months or older. The vaccine is available in shot form for all ages and in mist form for people two through 49 who do not have certain health problems and who are not pregnant. There is no priority-group order for receiving the vaccine.
Influenza (also known as the flu) is a contagious respiratory illness caused by flu viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. The flu is different from a cold. The flu usually comes on suddenly.
People who have the flu often feel some or all of these symptoms:
- Fever* or feeling feverish/chills
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.
* It's important to note that not everyone with flu will have a fever.
Most people who get the flu recover in a few days to less than two weeks, but some people will develop complications (such as pneumonia) as a result of the flu, some of which can be life-threatening and result in death.
Pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus and ear infections are examples of complications from flu. The flu can make chronic health problems worse. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have the flu, and people with chronic congestive heart failure may experience worsening of this condition that is triggered by the flu.
People at Higher Risk from Flu
Anyone can get the flu (even healthy people), and serious problems related to flu can happen at any age, but some people are at higher risk of developing serious flu-related complications if they get sick. This includes people 65 years and older, people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease), pregnant women, and young children.
Flu is unpredictable and how severe it is can vary widely from one season to the next depending on many things, including:
- What flu viruses are spreading;
- How much flu vaccine is available;
- When vaccine is available;
- How many people get vaccinated;
- How well the flu vaccine is matched to flu viruses that are causing illness.
Over a period of 31 seasons between 1976 and 2007, estimates of flu-associated deaths in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people. During a regular flu season, about 90 percent of deaths occur in people 65-years and older.
What Is The Difference Between A Cold And The Flu?
The flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses but they are caused by different viruses. Because these two types of illnesses have similar flu-like symptoms, it can be difficult to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. In general, the flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness, and dry cough are more common and intense. Colds are usually milder than the flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations.
How Can You Tell The Difference Between A Cold And The Flu?
Because colds and flu share many symptoms, it can be difficult (or even impossible) to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. Special tests that usually must be done within the first few days of illness can be carried out, when needed to tell if a person has the flu.
What Are The Symptoms Of The Flu Versus The Symptoms Of A Cold?
In general, the flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness, and dry cough are more common and intense. Colds are usually milder than the flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations.
What Should I Do If I Get Sick?
Most people with the flu have mild illness and do not need medical care or antiviral drugs. If you get sick with flu symptoms, in most cases, you should stay home and avoid contact with other people except to get medical care.
If, however, you have symptoms of flu and are in a high risk group, are very sick or worried about your illness, contact your health care provider (doctor, physician’s assistant, etc.).
Certain people are at greater risk of serious flu-related complications (including young children, elderly persons, pregnant women and people with certain long-term medical conditions) and this is true both for seasonal flu and novel flu virus infections. (For a full list of people at higher risk of flu-related complications, see People at High Risk of Developing Flu–Related Complications). If you are in a high risk group and develop flu symptoms, it’s best for you to contact your doctor. Remind them about your high risk status for flu.
Health care providers will determine whether influenza testing and possible treatment are needed. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs that can treat the flu. These drugs work better for treatment the sooner they are started.
What Are The Emergency Warning Signs?
- Fast breathing or trouble breathing;
- Bluish skin color;
- Not drinking enough fluids;
- Not waking up or not interacting;
- Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held;
- Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough;
- Fever with a rash
In addition to the signs above, get medical help right away for any infant who has any of these signs:
- Being unable to eat
- Has trouble breathing
- Has no tears when crying
- Significantly fewer wet diapers than normal
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Sudden dizziness
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough
Do I Need To Go To The Emergency Room If I Am Only A Little Sick?
No. The emergency room should be used for people who are very sick. You should not go to the emergency room if you are only mildly ill.
If you have the emergency warning signs of flu sickness, you should go to the emergency room. If you get sick with flu symptoms and are at high risk of flu complications or you are concerned about your illness, call your health care provider for advice. If you go to the emergency room and you are not sick with the flu, you may catch it from people who do have it.
Are There Medicines To Treat The Flu?
Yes. There are drugs your doctor may prescribe for treating the flu called “antivirals.” These drugs can make you better faster and may also prevent serious complications. See Treatment - Antiviral Drugs for more information.
How Long Should I Stay Home If I’m Sick?
CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or other necessities. Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine, such as Tylenol®. You should stay home from work, school, travel, shopping, social events, and public gatherings.
What Should I Do While I’m Sick?
Stay away from others as much as possible to keep from infecting them. If you must leave home, for example to get medical care, wear a facemask if you have one, or cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue. Wash your hands often to keep from spreading flu to others.
When caring for people who have the flu:
- Avoid being face to face with the sick person. If possible, it is best to spend the least amount of time in close contact with a sick person
- When holding sick children, place their chin on your shoulder so they will not cough in your face
- Wash your hands often and the right way
- If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub
- Make sure to wash your hands after touching the sick person. Wash after handling their tissues or laundry
Give plenty of liquids at the first sign of flu. Sick people with the flu need to drink extra fluids to keep from getting dehydrated. Mild fluid loss can most often be treated at home. Yet, severe dehydration is VERY serious and must be treated in the hospital.
Tips to prevent dehydration:
- If the sick person is not eating well, encourage them to drink liquids. Avoid alcohol or drinks with caffeine in them such as colas, tea, and coffee
- Older adults and people with kidney problems should check with their doctor about safe amounts of liquid to drink when sick
- Offer clear fluids such as water, broth, or sports drinks
- Use a squeeze bottle or a straw for people too weak to drink from a cup. Or offer ice chips or frozen ice pops to suck on
- Continue to nurse or bottle feed your baby. Babies get all the fluid they need from breastfeeding or formula
If your baby refuses to breastfeed or take formula from the bottle, call the doctor. Your doctor may recommend you give your child a special drink like Pedialyte®, which is meant to prevent dehydration.
Keeping the person with flu in a separate sick room can help keep others in the family from getting the flu.
Take these steps to create a separate sick room:
- Try to give the sick person their own room. If there is more than one sick person, they can share the sick room if needed
- If you have more than one bathroom, have sick people use one bathroom and well people use the other one
- Give each sick person their own drinking glass, washcloth, and towel
Have these items in the sick room:
- Trash can with lid and lined with a plastic trash bag
- Alcohol-based hand rub
- Cooler or pitcher with ice and drinks
- Set up a sick room with items available such as tissues, pitcher with ice, thermometer, and a humidifier. This man in bed has access to many of these items in a separate room.Cup with straw or squeeze bottle to help with drinking
- Humidifier (A machine that puts tiny drops of water into the air. This extra moisture can make it easier for the sick person to breathe.)
- Facemasks (Sick people should wear a facemask if available when they leave the sick room or are around other people.)
About medicines in the sick room:
- Store all medicines out of reach of children. If you have no young children in the home, place medicines for adults in the sick room
- Write down medicine dose and when doses are needed
Protect well family members from getting the flu. If the sick person must leave the room to go to the bathroom or to a doctor's visit, ask them to wear a facemask. No facemask at home? Ask the sick person to use a tissue to cover coughs and sneezes.
Follow these four sick room rules:
- Avoid having other people enter the sick room. The sick person should not have visitors other than the caregiver. If visitors must enter, they should stay at least 6 feet away from the sick person.
- Cover coughs and sneezes. Ask the sick person to cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when they cough and sneeze. Ask them to throw used tissues in the trash.
- Choose one caregiver. If you can, choose only one caregiver to take care of sick family members. If possible, ask someone else to be the caregiver if you are pregnant or have certain chronic health problems. If you get the flu, it could be much more serious for you.
- Keep the air clean. Open a window in the sick room, if possible, or use a fan to keep fresh air flowing.
You’ll also want to clean the sick room each day.
Follow these tips:
- Clean hard surfaces that may have flu germs on them. These may include doorknobs, bedside tables, bathroom sinks, toilets, counters, phones, and toys.
- Clean these hard surfaces by using water and dish soap. Or use common household cleaners that kill germs.
- Wash bed sheets and towels with normal laundry soap and tumble dry on a hot dryer setting. Hold all dirty laundry away from your face and body. Wash your hands right after touching dirty laundry.
- It’s OK to wash the sick person’s bedding or clothes with other people’s laundry.
- Wash the sick person’s dishes with normal dish soap or place in the dishwasher.
You can also check and see what locations near you are offering flu vaccinations.
For more information on flu prevention and signs, visit TexasFlu.org.
The CDC and Texas DSHS contributed to this report.