Influenza activity continues to be widespread throughout Missouri and nearly every other state. Lake Regional Health System's Denise Dickens, a registered nurse and the hospital's infection preventionist, offers the following advice about this year's flu season.
Know the signs of flu. Suspect the flu if you suddenly feel sick with some or all of the following symptoms: fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches, chills and fatigue. Flu symptoms usually come on suddenly, tend to be severe and last longer than cold symptoms. Usually, most symptoms are gone after five days, although cough and weakness may continue for a week or two.
Understand how flu is treated. Flu is a respiratory illness caused by viruses. As a result, antibiotics — which fight infections caused by bacteria — do not help people with the flu get well.
"If you have the flu — especially if you've been fighting it for several days — you just want to feel better," Dickens said. "Our doctors and nurses understand that and want to help you get better, too. Unfortunately, antibiotics will not help. They are not effective against the flu, so our doctors and nurse practitioners do not prescribe them for this illness."
The right treatment for the flu is rest and drinking lots of fluids. Over-the-counter medications may provide relief for symptoms such as a sore throat or congestion. Tylenol (acetaminophen) and Motrin (ibuprofen) can help with fever and pain. Antiviral medications, such as Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate), usually are needed only if the patient is at high risk for serious flu-related complications. People at high risk include children younger than 5 years old; adults 65 and older; and pregnant women.
Know when to seek emergency care. Most cases of flu, though miserable, resolve without complications. However, flu can develop into an emergency.
Adults should seek immediate medical care if they are having difficulty breathing or shortness of breath; pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen; sudden dizziness; confusion; severe or persistent vomiting; or flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough.
In children, warning signs include fast breathing or trouble breathing; bluish skin color; not drinking enough fluids; not waking up or not interacting; being so irritable that the child does not want to be held; flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough; and fever with a rash.
For infants, get medical help right away if the infant is unable to eat; has trouble breathing; has no tears when crying; or has significantly fewer wet diapers than normal.
Prevent flu's spread. If you are sick, stay away from others as much as possible to keep from infecting them. If you must leave home, for example to get medical care, wear a facemask if you have one, or cover coughs and sneezes with the crook of your elbow or a tissue. Wash your hands often, both to prevent passing on the flu if you have it and to help you avoid catching it if you do not.
Also, flu shots are still recommended and available at Lake Regional pharmacies and primary care clinics. Although this year's vaccine has been less effective than hoped, people who get the flu after getting the flu shot tend to have less severe cases than those with no protection.
"This has been a rough flu season, and we don't know how much longer it will go," Dickens said. "Please do all you can to protect yourself and those around you from the spread of this illness."
Learn more about the flu in our Health Library.