It’s a terrible year for the flu this year on the mainland. Forty-nine states and Puerto Rico are experiencing widespread influenza activity – and children dying of the flu could reach record highs. While Hawaii is currently only experiencing moderate local flu activity, health authorities are still reminding people that flu-related illness could increase and that it’s not too late to get vaccinated for the flu.
Dr. Kathleen Kozak, host of The Body Show on Hawaii Public Radio, spoke with Dr. Elizabeth Quinn from Kaiser Permanente about the best ways to avoid getting sick and what to do if you suspect you have the flu.
Is it the flu or a cold?
Oftentimes it is difficult to tell the difference between the flu and a cold because symptoms of both viruses can overlap.
“Usually, what we see with the flu are symptoms like fever, chills, headache, body ache, coughs,” says Quinn. “With the flu, symptoms are much more severe and can come on more suddenly. When I walk into my exam room, my patients experiencing the flu are the ones putting their heads down or have crawled onto the exam table to lie down.”
Sinusitis, bronchitis, and pneumonia are other conditions can develop as a consequence of the flu. Quinn says she’s had patients describe that they were getting better, then all of a sudden, symptoms worsen again.
“For colds and influenza, which are both viral infections, you should expect symptoms to go away within 1-2 weeks,” says Quinn. “We definitely want to hear from you if you’re getting shortness of breath, not keeping fluids down. For children, if they’re not responding as usual or are severely dehydrated, call the doctor right away.”
If you suspect that you have the flu, it is important to contact or see your doctor immediately, so you can get treatment, if necessary. In the early stages of the flu, anti-virals like Tamiflu can decrease the duration of the illness. People over age 65 and that have medical conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, also have a higher risk of developing dangerous complications from the flu.
“You should stay home from work, especially if you’re having severe symptoms,” says Quinn. “You want to avoid spreading it to others.”
Flu shot: Is it worth it?
What makes the flu shot different from other vaccinations is that a new formulation is created every year. Kozak says that starting in March or April, the CDC tries to predict the flu strains that are coming out the following year. Unfortunately, the virus that ends up circulating can be little different from what is in the shot and once flu season kicks into high gear, it’s too late to produce a new vaccine. But Quinn says unless you have some very specific issues, she recommends that most people should get their flu shots.
“The only times where I would say no, is if you’re undergoing certain procedures, like chemotherapy, have an allergy to eggs or have had a serious reaction to the flu shot in the past,” says Quinn.
Another issue people have is that they believe they flu shot isn’t effective, so what’s the point in getting it. There is some truth to this; at best, the effectiveness of the flu shot is 40-60 percent, says Quinn. Right now, with the H3N2 strain going around, that has gone down to 30 percent. Even accounting for those numbers, it’s still advantageous to get the shot. If you end up getting the flu, having had the shot can decrease the severity of your symptoms and prevent complications.
“I read an article written by one of our infectious disease doctors and he likened getting the flu shot to wearing a seatbelt,” says Quinn. “The seatbelt isn’t going to prevent all injuries if you get into a car accident, but you definitely want to be wearing one if you end up getting into an accident.”
Your doctor’s office isn’t the only place to get the flu shot. Places like Costco, Walgreens, and Safeway all offer flu shots, as early as August.
“I always tell people, it is never too late to get the shot,” says Quinn.
Having any kind of viral illness is an uncomfortable experience. There seems to be a surplus of cold remedies you can choose from, but do they work? Quinn says taking over the counter medications are great options to help you feel better as your body uses all of its resources to fight the virus. But the focus should be on fluids and rest.
“I think water is best, but any fluid you can get in is fine,” says Quinn. “Some people prefer cold beverages, some like warm beverages. Do whatever works best for you and that you can tolerate.”
Kozak also mentioned that while fever reducing medications, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, are beneficial if you’re so uncomfortable that you can’t rest, but if you can handle it, it’s alright to ride the fever out without medication as long as it doesn’t get too high.
“You definitely don’t have to be miserable with a fever,” says Quinn. “Just make sure you have not had a fever for 24 hours, without taking fever reducing medicines, before going back to work. And for children, do not give them aspirin. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen is the way to go.”
So besides getting your flu shot, what else can you do to prevent the spread of the flu and other viral illnesses? Both Kozak and Quinn say handwashing is number one, several times a day.
“Whether you’re at home or at work, you’re touching a lot of surfaces, elevator buttons, computer keyboards, things that other people touch too,” says Quinn. “Then if you touch your face or your mouth, you’re exposing yourself to those germs and increasing the likelihood of getting sick. If you don’t have soap and water, hand sanitizers are a great second choice.”
Quinn adds that it may seem rude, but simply staying away from sick people, if you can, is helpful.
“If you hear someone coughing, walk in the other direction, get a couple of feet away from them,” says Quinn.
Through UHA Health Insurance’s “Be Well” prevention and disease management benefits, members can get a flu vaccination covered at $0 co-pay at UHA-participating retail pharmacies within the Express Scripts network. Learn more here.