Steps to Take Today to Protect Your Family.
By this point in the flu season, pretty much everyone knows at least a few people who have fallen ill with a nasty case. The flu arrived early and has been more severe than usual as well. Public-health experts aren’t surprised. Australia, which gets its flu season before ours in the Northern Hemisphere, was hit hard and doctors have been bracing ever since.
It’s a mistake in any year to confuse influenza with the generic “colds and flu” that people talk about each winter. Influenza can be a serious disease; each year it kills somewhere between 3,000 and 49,000 Americans. This year, the particularly fierce H3N2 type of flu, which is more likely to land people in the hospital, is among the dominant strains. Emergency rooms are strained by the number of flu cases showing up, and by mid-January, California health officials reported that 42 people had died of the flu so far this season. The number last year by that time was nine. Senior citizens and preschool-age children are particularly vulnerable to becoming severely ill.
So what can you do to protect your family?
It starts with a flu shot for just about everyone.
“The number one thing you can do to prevent getting the flu is to get vaccinated,” said Aliso Viejo pediatrician Eric Morley. “With very few exceptions, everyone over the age of 6 months should get a yearly flu shot before flu season begins.”
You may have heard that the flu vaccine this year isn’t one of the more effective ones, and in a way, that’s true. It appears to be a little over 30 percent effective at preventing the flu, and even that number is boosted by its ability to stop the H1N1 flu that’s also going around, not the more serious H3N2, said Shruti CQ Gohil, CQ associate medical director of epidemiology and infection protection at UC Irvine Health.
But there’s more to effectiveness than keeping you totally healthy. Vaccinated people are far more likely to get a milder case of the flu, and avoiding pneumonia, hospitalization and the need for intensive care, Gohil said. And with a bug like H3N2 around, reducing the severity of the illness counts for a lot.
Besides, even at the low end of effectiveness, the flu shot still keeps millions of people from getting sick. And everyone who stays well is also helping to keep all the people around them from getting sick.
Children are no longer getting the nasal flu mist for their vaccine, after studies found that it wasn’t working. But the flu shot involves a very small needle; most people will barely feel the jab.
Nor is it too late to get your flu shot. “Typically, flu activity peaks between December and February, but can last as late as May,” said Marc CQ Taub, medical director of emergency services at Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills.
Another effective way to prevent the flu is with good hygiene. Taub recommends washing your hands regularly with soap and water to remove the pathogens that might have touched by sick people.
Every parent knows how unlikely kids are to wash up, though, especially when they’re in school. Fortunately, there’s an alternative: Alcohol-based hand sanitizer, unlike antibacterial formulas, will kill viruses. Gohil said a study among military staff found that the number of respiratory illnesses fell sharply once dispensers of sanitizer were placed around base.
“They can kill virus immediately once they’ve dried,” she said.
Make sure your children are supplied with a bottle for their desk and their backpack. Show them how to use enough to rub it into all the parts of their hand; if their hands are dry within 15 seconds or so, they haven’t used enough.
Morley and Taub also recommend staying away from people who are obviously sick and avoiding touching your mouth, eyes and nose. And of course, in order to keep others from becoming sick, teach your children to sneeze or cough into their elbows.
But how do you know if you or your child is coming down with the flu, or with just a regular cold?
According to Gohil, a cold tends to come on more slowly. Most of us are familiar with that drippy feeling in our throats signaling that a cold is on its way, or a sore throat. But the flu, Gohil said, tends to hit all at once, with fever, sore throat, muscle aches and feeling wiped out.
Many cases of flu can be safely ridden out at home, but be aware of the signs that indicate, crowded medical offices or not, that someone in your family needs a doctor. Young children, the elderly and people with certain chronic conditions should be under the care of a physician, Taub said. Those conditions include asthma, diabetes, lung, heart, liver, or kidney diseases ad weakened immune systems.
A trip to the emergency room is in order if any of the following occurs, Taub and Morley advised:
- Difficulty breathing
- Uncontrollable vomiting and inability to keep down fluids
- Unexplained rashes
- Severe headache or fevers not responding to OTC medications
- Extreme lethargy, fatigue or irritability in a child, or signs of dehydration
- Severe abdominal pain
- Stroke or heart attack symptoms
The best tactics, of course, are those that keep as many people as possible from serious illness this winter and early spring. A quick flu shot, soap or sanitizer, nutritious food and plenty of sleep, along with common-sense prevention measures, should help families stay healthier.