Although many people get the flu and simply suffer through it to live another day, a flu virus can kill you and this flu season has been particularly severe. Health officials in California report 243 people have already died in the state from influenza this season and 41 additional deaths may be flu related. The nasty strain causing so much misery this year is the H1N1 virus, also known as the “swine flu” and it is the same virus that caused a pandemic in 2009 and 2010 that killed thousands of people around the world.
According to the Center for Disease Control, currently the geographic spread of influenza in 24 states is widespread. The death toll in California alone is already more than double the 106 influenza related deaths the state reported last year.
Although the current flu season is winding down, it is not too late to get a flu shot especially for “at risk” populations, which include the very young, the elderly, those with compromised immune systems and health providers. The CDC strongly encourages anyone who was not immunized before the flu season to go ahead and get a flu shot now.
It does take about two weeks for the shot to realize its full immunization potential but the flu season can extend past April and the protection could prove to be a lifesaver. Unlike some previous vaccines, the vaccine this year has been very effective in preventing people from getting sick. An overwhelming majority of the people who died from the H1N1 virus this year had not been vaccinated.
The symptoms of influenza are different from those of the stomach flu, which generally causes vomiting and diarrhea. Influenza attacks the respiratory system causing fever, (although not everyone who has the flu will have a fever) chills, body aches, sore throat, a runny or congested nose, headache, fatigue and a loss of appetite. Some adults will experience vomiting and diarrhea although children are more likely to have those additional symptoms.
Most people can expect to recover from the flu within one to two weeks. However, the risk of complications, such as pneumonia, ear and sinus infections and bronchitis, can turn what was initially a miserable and inconvenient illness into a life-threatening situation that requires immediate medical attention. It is critical to seek medical attention if any complications arise or recovery from the flu is prolonged with an increase in the severity of symptoms.
Unfortunately, influenza can become infectious up to one day before symptoms appear so the virus is often spread before people begin to take precautions. However, once symptomatic, people need to stay home, wash their hands thoroughly and often and cover their mouths when sneezing and coughing. Covering the mouth with a hand or tissue is critical as the CDC states that people can spread the flu to others up to six feet away because the droplets made when coughing, sneezing or talking can land in the mouths or noses of nearby people or be inhaled into their lungs. It is also important to disinfect commonly touched surfaces in the environment, which includes washing linens, cleaning television remotes, gaming controllers and doorknobs, items that are easy to overlook.
The best way to protect against the flu is to get a yearly immunization before flu season begins, make it a habit to wash your hands often and keep them away from your eyes, nose and mouth. The CDC makes the obvious recommendation to avoid coming in contact with sick people but as parents, teachers, commuters, public consumers, employees and family members it is often difficult to do this. Remember too that the best defense is a good offense and try to keep your immune system strong by getting plenty of rest, reducing stress, eating well and keeping physically fit. Along with an annual flu shot these measures can protect against a virus that can not only wreak havoc on a person’s health but as the high number of deaths in California shows, can also kill.
By Alana Marie Burke
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