By Alyson Ward
Every fall, patients start filling physicians’ offices with the classic symptoms of flu – fever and muscle aches, cough and congestion, sore throat and deep fatigue.
And this year, flu season – which started Oct. 1 – may be especially harsh, says Dr. Monica Kalra, a family medicine physician who sees patients in Sugar Land at Memorial Hermann Medical Group Physicians at Sugar Creek.
Worldwide, the flu generally sweeps through Australia before it comes to the United States, she says – and 2019 was a rough flu season in Australia. The last time Australia was hit hard by the flu was 2017. Soon after, the United States had its worst season in years, with nearly 80,000 deaths nationwide.
“We know this season may be severe,” Dr. Kalra says, so prevention is important. “If we are going to have a bad flu season again, we need to protect ourselves.”
Here’s how to avoid getting the flu. Or if you do get sick, how to keep from spreading the virus to others.
Get a flu shot. You may have heard that this year’s flu shot isn’t as effective as it usually is. That’s true, Dr. Kalra says – but you should get one anyway. “Every year, the flu shot’s effectiveness varies. Even if it’s not 100 percent effective, we know for a fact that if people get the flu shot, they’re much less likely to have a severe case of the flu.” Even if you get sick, you’re likely to have milder symptoms and stay out of the hospital.
Be a germaphobe. “Just wash your hands as much as possible,” Dr. Kalra advises – soap and water can go a long way toward preventing sickness. Be especially careful to keep your hands clean before you eat or touch your face, she says. And if you’re traveling by airplane or sitting in close quarters with others, take care to wipe off surfaces and wash your hands afterward. “There are germs everywhere” during flu season,” Dr. Kalra says. “Catching the flu or a similar virus is almost inevitable.”
Watch out for children and the elderly. Young children have less built-in immunity, Dr. Kalra says – especially babies younger than six months, who aren’t able to get a flu shot. Older people are at high risk because they’re likely to have conditions – such as heart disease, kidney disease, and diabetes – that weaken the immune system and make it harder to fight a virus.
If you spend any time with someone who is 65 or older, protect them by getting a flu shot and by staying away if you’re sick. And if you are pregnant, make your flu shot a priority, Dr. Kalra advises. “Babies born in the fall, especially, are at really high risk for getting the flu,” she says. “If mom gets a flu shot, at least the baby will have some passive immunity” in those crucial first months.
If you detect symptoms, take action. “If you are achy and you have a fever or a cough, I recommend seeing a physician pretty quickly,” Dr. Kalra says. A dose of the antiviral Tamiflu can reduce your symptoms and shorten your illness, but it’s not as effective if you’ve had symptoms for more than two days.
As soon as you suspect you have the flu, make an appointment with your doctor, drop into an Urgent Care or do a virtual consult with a healthcare provider online. If you’re a Texas resident, call the Nurse Health Line and a nurse will help you decide what type of care you need.
Stay home if you’re contagious. If you have a fever of 100.4 or higher, “I would try to stay home from work,” Dr. Kalra says. You may be too sick to function and will expose your colleagues to the flu virus. That rule of thumb is good for kids staying home from school or day care, too. When is it safe to go back? When you’ve had no fever for at least 24 hours. By that time, you should be on the mend and less likely to spread the flu to others.