Submitted by Dr. Kenneth Dietrich, Chief Medical Officer
As I am sure everyone in Grays Harbor County is aware, we are in the midst of an Influenza epidemic. This season seems to be much more serious than prior years. Many people have been infected with the virus already and many more will be over the next few months. Unfortunately Influenza has already cased many deaths in Washington State this year.
The number of patients seeking care has overwhelmed our clinics, emergency rooms and hospitals. The current situation has resulted in many questions regarding Influenza. So, we thought we would address a few:
What is Influenza?
Influenza is a virus that causes severe systemic illness. It is seasonal and occurs each year. There are many different strains of the virus, which prevents permanent immunity after being immunized or infected. Therefore, humans can contract the disease every year.
Influenza is not the “flu.” People often use the “flu” to describe upper respiratory track infections, gastroenteritis, sore throats, and other common viral illnesses. These infections are caused by a large variety of viruses, but are not caused by the Influenza virus. The Influenza virus is much more aggressive. It often affects multiple organs and systems, causing systemic symptoms (see below). Anyone may contract the disease, and young children and older adults are most susceptible.
With patient volumes, skyrocketing in all healthcare facilities is it safer to stay home or sit in a lobby with a bunch of other sick people for hours?
Hospitals and healthcare clinics are always filled with sick people. With our current Influenza epidemic, many of the people will be actively infected and contagious with the Influenza virus. Therefore, the best way to protect yourself from contracting Influenza is to stay away from these areas if at all possible.
What can healthcare providers really do for people who are exhibiting Influenza symptoms?
Direct treatment for Influenza is very limited. There is evidence that treatment with an antiviral drug can help reduce the severity and length of symptoms resulting from Influenza. Unfortunately, these benefits only occur if the drug is started within the first two days of illness. This becomes problematic because most people who contract Influenza either have limited symptoms during that the first 48 hours and thus do not seek medical attention early enough for treatment to be beneficial. After the first two days of illness all other therapy options are directed toward treating the symptoms that result from the infection.
How effective has the Influenza vaccine been?
Influenza vaccination is the best option to prevent contracting Influenza and reducing its severity if contracted. Because different strains of the virus emerge each year, the vaccine is not 100% effective. However, the risk of contracting the disease without the vaccine is much, much greater. Most of the people who have contracted Influenza this year have not been immunized. And generally, those who were immunized and contracted Influenza have had much less severe courses.
If someone hasn’t already had a flu shot, is it too late?
No, it is not too late to benefit from the Influenza vaccine. It takes approximately 2 weeks to reach full immunity after receiving the vaccine. The Influenza season will continue for another two to three months. In fact, it has not yet reached its seasonal peak. Therefore for those who have not been immunized the vaccine still offers the best way to reduce ones risk of contracting Influenza this year.
Additional information can be found on the Washington State Department of Health website: http://www.doh.wa.gov/YouandYourFamily/IllnessandDisease/Flu
I have copied some of the material from our Department of Health for your review.
2016-2017 Flu Season
January Update: Flu activity is on the rise in Washington! There are steps you can take right now to reduce your risk of exposure and minimize the chance of spreading disease. Flu vaccination is the best method of prevention, followed by covering your cough/proper hand washing and staying home from school or work when you are sick. The flu shot does take up to 2 weeks to provide full protection, but is available right now at pharmacies and clinic locations throughout the state. Protect yourself and your family by getting vaccinated as soon as possible —and by educating yourself about this season’s flu updates:
How do I know if I have the flu?
You may have the flu if you have some or all of these symptoms:
- sore throat
- runny or stuffy nose
- body aches
- sometimes diarrhea and vomiting
*It’s important to note that not everyone with flu will have a fever.
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, or are very sick or worried about your illness, contact your health care provider (doctor, physician assistant, etc.).
Certain people are at high risk of serious flu-related complications (including young children, people 65 and older, pregnant women and people with certain medical conditions). This is true both for seasonal flu and novel flu virus infections. (For a full list of people at high 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 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.
Do I need to go 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.
What are the emergency warning signs of flu sickness?
- 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
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.