As flu season rages, please get vaccinated and take other precautions

cough-194x300The flu season’s roaring across the country. It’s a bad one, with the H3N2 strain afflicting millions with a severe form of illness — which also has been deadly, notably for the old and young.

If you haven’t done so, consider getting a flu shot, asap. The flu shot this year may be less than optimal in the protections it may offer. Still, as Aaron Carroll — a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine who blogs on health research and policy at The Incidental Economist — argues in a New York Times “Upshot” column, the benefits of inoculation are still clear and pronounced.

As he writes:

The negatives of a flu shot are almost nonexistent, and significant side effects are very rare. Even in an ineffective year, the benefits greatly outweigh the harms. The [federal] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [the CDC] estimates that 9 million to 36 million people become ill with the flu each year in the United States. Somewhere between 140,000 and 710,000 of them require hospitalization, and 12,000 to 56,000 die each year.

CBS News reported that, by last weekend, the “flu stats [were] particularly sobering when it comes to pediatric deaths. In the first week of 2018, seven more children died from the flu, bringing the total number to 20 so far for the season.” The Washington Post recently carried a sad story on a young athlete’s failed efforts to fight through the flu may have cost him his life.

If you or your loved ones get the flu, don’t struggle to maintain the norm: Stay home, and don’t infect everybody at school or the office. You’ll appreciate that consideration from others — and your thoughtfulness just might save a colleague or one of your kids’ playmates from a serious illness, or worse. That’s because others, including expectant moms, those with chronic conditions and compromised immune systems, may not have the body strength to fight the flu as well as you can.

Please wash your hands, often and vigorously, and cover up when you cough or sneeze, as Dr. Carroll recommends. Sanitary wipes may be good to keep around, not just at home or work but also maybe at the restaurant and gym.

It may be a precaution that’s past effectiveness, but think about staying away from concentrated contact with large groups, especially with many grown-ups and kids. Yes, that’s describing the seasonal parties and get-togethers over the holidays, including with family and friends locked up for long spells in the recent cold and wet weather. But maybe for a few weeks it might be worth skipping crowds at shopping malls, concerts, or sporting events. The epidemic levels of flu will last for weeks at least. As the Washington Post summarized it in a recent headline from the CDC’s point of view: ‘There’s lots of flu in lots of places.’ And it’s not going away anytime soon.

Feeling punk and think you might be infected? Here’s what the CDC says about your illness:

The flu is different from a cold. The flu usually comes on suddenly. People who have the flu often feel some or all of these symptoms: Fever or feeling feverish/chills. Cough. Sore throat. Runny or stuffy nose. Muscle or body aches. Headaches. Fatigue (tiredness). Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults … Pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus and ear infections are examples of complications from flu. The flu can make chronic health problems worse. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have the flu, and people with chronic congestive heart failure may experience worsening of this condition that is triggered by the flu.

If infected, rest, drink lots of liquids, and stay warm and quiet. You may not want to lie down all day long, as getting vertical may help your respiratory system drain. You may want, very early on, to talk with your doctor about antivirals and whether they can lessen the effects and duration of your flu. You may have challenges in getting an appointment, though, as doctor’s offices, urgent care clinics, and even hospital emergency rooms in parts of the country have been overrun by patients seriously ill with flu.

If the younger folks in the house also develop a bad hack, please know that the federal Food and Drug Administration has sharpened even more its warnings to parents, physicians, and pharmacists that cough and cold medicines containing codeine and hydrocodone should not be prescribed for patients younger than 18 because of serious safety risks posed by the opioid ingredients. Common side effects of opioids include headache, dizziness and vomiting. Greater dangers include breathing difficulties and even death.

Adults should be wary of these medications, too, as they now will carry a boxed, prominent warning about the dangers posed by codeine and hydrocodone.

In my practice, I see the big harms that patients can suffer while seeking medical services, including when common infections like the flu spread widely and turn bad. Be careful with any medications you take for the flu, or other seasonal illnesses: As I also see in my practice, drugs can be dangerous and harmful, too. Stay healthy, and here’s hoping that we all get through the miserable weather and bad colds and flu season — pronto.

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