In the United States, the flu season got off to an earlier start this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with as many as 3.7 million cases and up to 3,300 flu-related deaths up to the beginning of December. And while the season hasn’t taken “root” in The Bahamas for the winter season as yet, a family medicine practitioner encourages people to take the appropriate preventative steps now to protect themselves.
Dr. Patrick Whitfield recommends that people protect themselves by getting a flu shot, which he said is probably one of the most important steps in protecting against influenza and its potentially serious complications; and following up the vaccination with minimizing exposure to people with the flu.
While Whitfield said that anyone can get sick with the flu, and serious problems related to the flu can happen at any age, he said some people are at high risk of developing serious flu-related complications if they get sick. And as such, the doctor said everyone six months and older should get the vaccination every year before flu activity begins in their community.
“Vaccination of high-risk persons is especially important to decrease their risk of severe flu illness,” said the family medicine practitioner who works out of Chesapeake Comprehensive Care, Alexander Street. “People at high risk of serious flu complications include young children, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes or heart and lung disease, and people 65 years and older. Infants younger than six months are at high risk of serious flu illness, but are too young to be vaccinated.”
He said studies have shown that flu vaccination of pregnant mothers can protect the baby after birth from infection for several months. The doctor said that people who live with, or care for infants should be vaccinated.
Vaccination he said is also important for health care workers, and other people who live with or care for high risk people to keep from spreading the flu to patients who come to them for other reasons.
According to the doctor, influenza can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death.
The flu versus a cold
“The flu is different from a cold,” said Whitfield. “Flu usually comes on suddenly. People who have flu often feel some or all of these symptoms – fever or feeling feverish/chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, and some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, although this is more common in children than adults.”
The doctor noted that not everyone with flu will have a fever.
He said that while most people who get the flu will recover in a few days to less than two weeks, he said 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.
“Sinus and ear infections are examples of moderate complications from flu, while pneumonia is a serious flu complication that can result from either influenza virus infection alone, or from co-infection of flu virus and bacteria.”
Other possible serious complications he said that can be triggered by flu can include inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis) or muscle (myositis, rhabdomyolysis) tissues and multi-organ failure (for example, respiratory and kidney failure).
“Flu virus infection of the respiratory tract can trigger an extreme inflammatory response in the body and can lead to sepsis, the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Flu also can make medical problems worse. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have the flu, and people with chronic heart disease may experience a worsening of this condition triggered by flu.”
With vaccination as the first line of defense against the virus, he said there are everyday preventive actions that should be heeded to stop the spread of germs, which include trying to avoid close contact with sick people; and for those people that are sick, he said they should limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them. And if you are sick with flu-like illness, the doctor recommends staying at home for at least 24 hours after their fever is gone, except to get medical care or for other necessities.
Whitfield reminds people to cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when they cough or sneeze, and after using a tissue, discarding it in the trash and washing their hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, he encourages the use of an alcohol-based hand rub. He further encourages people to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth to avoid spreading germs. As well as cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like flu.
“There are numerous aspects to prevention, so protect yourself now. And people who need prevention, healthcare workers, because we see so many people with the flu, because not only you as a doctor or nurse can pass it on to other people who come in for other reasons.”
If prescribed flu antiviral drugs by a doctor, Whitfield said people should take them as prescribed as the antiviral drugs can be used to treat illness.
“Antiviral drugs can make the illness milder and shorten the time you are sick. They may also prevent serious flu complications. For people with high-risk factors, treatment with an antiviral drug can mean the difference between having a milder illness versus a very serious illness that could result in a hospital stay. Studies show that flu antiviral drugs work best for treatment when they are started within 48 hours of getting sick, but starting them later can still be helpful, especially if the sick person has a high-risk health condition or is very sick from flu.”
Health and age factors that are known to increase a person’s risk of getting serious complications from the flu, include asthma, blood disorders (such as sickle cell disease), endocrine disorders (such as diabetes mellitus), heart disease (such as congenital heart disease, congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease), kidney disorders, liver disorders, people who are obese with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher, and people with a weakened immune system due to disease (such as those receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer, or persons with chronic conditions requiring chronic corticosteroids or other drugs that suppress the immune system.)
How the flu spreads
According to the doctor, the flu is spread from person to person and people with flu can spread it to others up to about six feet away.
“Most experts think that flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Less often, a person might get the flu by touching a surface or object that has the flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.”
The doctor said people with the flu are most contagious in the first three days after their illness begins. And that most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning a day before symptoms develop, and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. He said children and some people with weakened immune systems may pass the virus for longer than seven days.
“Symptoms can begin about two days, but can range from one to four days, after the virus enters the body. That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick. Some people can be infected with the flu virus but have no symptoms. During this time, those people may still spread the virus to others,” he said.
Whitfield said people with the flu are most contagious in the first three to four days after their illness begins, and that some otherwise healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. He said some people, especially young children, and people with weakened immune systems, might be able to infect others with flu viruses for an even longer time.
If a person hasn’t had their flu shot as yet, the doctor said they still have time to protect themselves. Whitfield tracks the flu via the CDC’s influenza mapping system, which outlines influenza in the United States and turns red in U.S. states when it’s running high. Currently, he said Florida isn’t in the red zone, but when that state turns red, he said The Bahamas should be on high alert.