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This flu season has been one that experts were not expecting. It began earlier than usual and doesn’t look as if it will be ending any time soon. Because of this early start experts believe that it will most likely last longer than the average 13 weeks. We are already into the 9th week.

The flu is still pretty widespread in a majority of states. Significant activity is being reported in Alabama, Georgia, Hawaii, Minnesota and Tennessee. According to the experts, the season is still above epidemic levels, meaning the number of cases is still higher than usual. Flu-related hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise, according to the CDC. The total number of deaths this season is 56 (as of the week ending January 17). This is the number of children who have died from the flu. The number of adult deaths are not tracked.

For the state of Delaware, as of Friday, there have been 1825 lab-confirmed influenza cases so far this season. This is only eighteen less than the total flu count from last year, according to the Delaware Department of Public Health. Deaths from flu in Delaware stand at 19, which is the highest in the last 5 years. All of the people who died had underlying conditions. And 1/3 of those who died had been vaccinated. Eighteen of the nineteen were over the age of 65. This age group has been the hardest hit this year.

So why do people who get the influenza vaccination still get the flu? It’s not what most people think. The vaccine does not cause one to get the flu. A person can get the flu even after being vaccinated in a couple of ways. If a person comes in contact with a strain not covered by the vaccine, they can become ill. The CDC starts months earlier than flu season begins trying to identify the strains of influenza around the world that are most likely to affect people in this country, preventing the flu in 70% to 90% of healthy adults. The resulting vaccine is designed to protect against three strains expected to cause the most illnesses during the flu season. In the past 16 years, the vaccine matched the predominant strain that arrived in the United States 15 of those years. When people get the flu immediately or shortly after receiving the vaccine, it’s usually because they had contact with a strain too soon after the vaccine and they had not built up antibodies yet, not from the vaccine itself.

Why has this flu season hit us so hard? This year’s vaccine offers less protection than anticipated. The mutated strain of H3N2 has been reported in almost all states. The H3N2 strain is a common seasonal flu strain. This mutated strain is not covered in this season’s vaccine. The effectiveness is only 24%. The vaccines effectiveness has ranged from 10% to 60% since the CDC started measuring how well flu vaccines work in 2005. In Delaware, flu strains include H1N1 (aka Swine Flu) and H3N2. Experts say that it is still a good idea to get vaccinated since the vaccine still offers some protection and might fight off other strains.

On the up side of things, the number of new infections has been decreasing from week to week. But if you think that you may have the flu, seek medical care immediately so that you can receive antiviral medications. If you report symptoms early enough (within the 1st day or so), these medications (Tamiflu and Relenza) can be effective to reduce the symptoms and decrease the chance of hospitalization. No shortage of these medications has been reported as of yet.

If you’re unsure of the difference between a cold and the flu, keep reading and hopefully you will have a better understanding after today.

What is A Cold?
A common cold is a group of symptoms in the upper respiratory tract (affecting the nose, throat and ears) caused by a large number of viruses.

Symptoms usually start two or three days after you come in contact with the cold virus. You may have:
• Runny or stuffy nose
• Congestion
• Cough
• Watery eyes
• Sneezing
• Low fever
• Itchy or sore throat
• Feeling tired
• Headache
• Minor body aches

Cold symptoms usually only last about a week, but they can also last from 2 to 14 days. If your symptoms last longer than two weeks, they could be symptoms of other conditions, such as allergies or asthma.

How Are Colds Spread?
If someone who is sick coughs, sneezes or talks, their germs can spread to you through droplets in the air. The cold virus can also spread by hand-to-hand contact, or by using the same objects as someone who is sick, like eating utensils, telephone, a computer keyboard or mouse and a door knob. If you get germs on your hands and then touch your face, you could easily get a cold.

How is A Cold Treated?
Cold symptoms can be treated, but the cold itself cannot cured. Medications are available to be purchased over-the-counter (without a prescription), such as antihistamines, decongestants or cough suppressants to help your cold. Colds usually resolve on their own. There’s no cure for colds because they’re caused by viruses. Antibiotics won’t work to treat colds because these medicines treat bacteria, not viruses.

What is the Flu?
The flu or influenza, is a viral infection that affects your respiratory system(nose, throat, bronchial tubes and lungs). The flu is most common from November to April, commonly known as “the flu season”.

Are You At Risk?
The flu is very contagious and children and older adults have a higher risk of getting it. You are at an even higher risk if you have a chronic condition like asthma, heart disease or diabetes. Because of this, your doctor may recommend getting an annual flu shot.

How Does the Flu Spread?
The flu spreads just like the common cold. The virus gets into the air when someone who has the flu coughs, sneezes or talks. You might inhale the droplets from the air or you could get germs from touching something.

Flu symptoms come on very quickly and are more severe than cold symptoms. You may have:
• High fever (102-105 degrees Fahrenheit)
• Chills and sweats
• Headache
• Dry cough
• Muscle aches and pains, especially in your back and legs
• Fatigue and weakness
• Nasal congestion
• Loss of appetite
• Sore throat
You can also have vomiting and diarrhea with the flu. Keep in mind, this isn’t the same as the stomach flu, a virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea.

Most flu symptoms improve within one week, but some, like feeling weak or tired, can last longer.

How is the Flu Treated?
If you see your doctor within two days of first noticing symptoms, he may be able to prescribe an antiviral medicine as was mentioned previously. This will help you have less severe symptoms, and the flu may go away a few days sooner. You can also take medicines that can help ease the symptoms.

Just like the common cold, the flu is caused by a virus, so antibiotics won’t work to help cure it or prevent it from being spread to others.

What About the Flu Vaccine?
Your doctor may recommend that you get a flu shot every year. The vaccine helps reduce your risk of getting the virus, and can help prevent serious complications if you do get the flu. If you already have the flu, getting the vaccine won’t help.

Managing And Preventing Colds and the Flu

Thorough and frequent handwashing is always the best way to prevent getting and/or spreading the flu or a cold.

Home and Natural Remedies
• Chicken soup (mucous stimulant-clears nasal congestion and thins mucous to make it easier cough up) also research shows a mild anti-inflammatory effect helps ease cold symptoms.
• Hot tea (helps thin mucous and ensures proper hydration of the body; green and black tea are potent antioxidants.
• Echinacea, Vitamin C, Zinc lozenges and nasal sprays.
(Learn about these and consult your physician before using these.)

Diet and Exercise
• Eat a nutritional, well-balanced diet to keep the body functioning optimally.
• Foods rich in nutrients help fight infections and may prevent illnesses.
• Eat more raw fruits and vegetables (rich in Vitamin C and Vitamin E).
• Yogurt (1 cup daily) decreases susceptibility to colds (beneficial bacteria stimulates the immune system).
• Zinc (has antioxidant effects) – resistance to infections and tissue repair and stimulates the immune system (ie; eggs, meats, nuts, seafood, seeds, wheat germ and whole grains).

State Flu Vaccination Clinics in the State of Delaware

Through Jan. 29:
Hudson State Service Center, 501 Ogletown Road, Newark – Weekdays by appointment, call (302) 283-7587
Williams State Service Center, 805 River Road, Dover – 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday by appointment, call (302) 857-5130
Milford State Service Center, 253 N.E. Front St., Milford – Monday, Wednesday, Thursday by appointment, call (302) 424-7130
Adams State Service Center, 544 S. Bedford St., Georgetown – 9-11 a.m. Mondays only, walk-ins welcome
Shipley State Service Center, 350 Virginia Ave., Seaford – 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Fridays only, walk-ins welcome

Delaware’s Division of Public Health offers these flu-prevention tips:

Ensure all your loved ones are vaccinated against the illness. Vaccines are available from Division of Public Health clinics, physicians, pharmacies and many grocery stores.

If you are receiving treatment in a long-term care facility or in-home care, ask if the staff is vaccinated against the flu and, if not, the staff person should be wearing a mask at all times.

Visits at home or in a facility should be limited if the visitor is under age 16, has the flu or is at risk of exposure to the flu. The illness can be transmitted prior to someone showing symptoms.

If living with a senior and a family member contracts the flu, keep the two separate as much as possible and ensure everyone in the home follows sanitary precautions.

Wash hands frequently with soap or use alcohol-based hand sanitizers, especially after you cough, sneeze or touch your face.

Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue and dispose of the tissue immediately. If a tissue is not available, cough or sneeze into your inner elbow. Droplets from a sneeze can travel up to 6 feet.

Stay home when sick and do not return to work or school until 24 hours after a fever is gone.