The U.S. is potentially on track for one of the worst flu seasons we have seen in decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu activity has been elevated for eight straight weeks. As of the publication date of this blog, an estimated 9.7 million people have gotten sick and there have been 4,800 flu-related deaths. Unfortunately, a record number of children have died at this point in the season, making it the highest pediatric flu death toll in 17 years.
“Flu activity at this point in the season is as high as it was in 2014-2015 and 2017-2018, which were really severe flu seasons,” said Dr. Michael Chang, infectious disease specialist with Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and UTHealth. “So far, the predominant strain has been Flu B, which is a bit unusual for this time of year. Flu A is just now starting to increase. Flu A is usually the predominant chain.”
The main difference between the two strains of flu is who they can affect. Flu A can be carried and spread by animals as well as humans, so if Flu A is just now starting to increase, many more people could be affected. Both strains can be transmitted by coughing and/or coming into contact with an infected person.
“If both are circulating at the same time, we could be in for a really long flu season,” said Dr. Chang.
According to Dr. Chang, the best way to protect yourself and your family from severe flu is to get vaccinated. There could be several weeks left in the flu season, so it isn’t too late to get vaccinated now. Also, be sure to practice good hand hygiene (sanitizing or hand washing) and cough etiquette. Proper cough and sneeze etiquette means covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, putting your used tissue in the trash and washing your hands after.
Dr. Monica Kalra, a family medicine physician who sees patients in Sugar Land at Memorial Hermann Medical Group Physicians at Sugar Creek, recently gave some additional tips to avoid the flu:
Be a germaphobe. “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 6 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 or 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 free 24/7 Nurse Health Line and a nurse can help you decide what type of care you need.
Stay home if you’re contagious. If you have a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, “I would 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 works 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.
For additional information from Dr. Kalra, please visit http://blog.memorialhermann.org/how-to-avoid-the-flu-this-fall/