By Stacia M. Hays, DNP, CPNP-PC, CCTC, CNE, FAANP
As restrictions are eased and we continue learning how to live and socialize during the COVID-19 pandemic, people are increasingly out in public, and many have resumed traveling to spend time with family in different states or around the world. Due to our recent seclusion and social isolation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts high flu activity this year.
Influenza or flu season in the U.S. falls between October and May, with the highest infection rates typically occurring from December to March — a common time for family gatherings and vacations. Influenza combined with pneumonia is one of the top 10 causes of death in the United States. Flu is a contagious virus that infects the nose, throat and lungs. It is easily spread through contact with someone who has the flu, even if they aren’t showing symptoms yet. Anyone can get the flu. According to the CDC, those most likely to be infected are children, older adults and those with chronic illnesses. Therefore, the flu vaccine is recommended for anyone age 6 months and older.
Common signs of the flu include the abrupt development of symptoms that include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headache and excessive tiredness. The CDC warns that children may also have vomiting and diarrhea. Unfortunately, some of these symptoms can look the same as infection with the COVID-19 virus. Proper treatment requires being tested to verify that you have been infected with the flu. The best thing you can do when you have the flu is to drink plenty of fluids and rest. Many people can be treated with antiviral medication, which must be started within 72 hours of symptoms. Please also note that prescription medication is not appropriate for everyone. If you have symptoms, contact your nurse practitioner (NP) or other health care provider to ask if prescription medication is right for you.
Why should you receive the flu vaccine? Hospitals are overcrowded with patients being treated for COVID-19, and infection with the flu can be serious too. Data indicate that the flu vaccine is estimated to prevent more than 7.5 million influenza illnesses, 105,000 associated hospitalizations and 6,300 influenza-related deaths annually. Last year, more than 20,000 people died of flu-related illnesses; 486 of these were children, many of whom were not considered to be at high risk for serious illness or death from the flu. Last year, more than 16 million health care visits were due to flu-related complaints.
There are many simple ways to prevent contracting and spreading the flu. Some of which you are probably already doing:
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water. If soap is not available, then use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, since this easily introduces the virus into your body.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Cover coughs and sneezes.
- Stay away from others until your fever is gone or your symptoms resolve.
- Most importantly, get your yearly flu vaccination.
As a pediatric NP, I never miss an opportunity to teach patients and families about the importance of getting the flu vaccine, and I offer it to my patients as soon as it is available. Because this vaccine can be given with other immunizations (including the COVID-19 vaccine) or during a visit for another reason, there is no need to schedule a separate appointment The flu vaccine can be given by an injection or intranasally, which is through a mist in the nose. If you are worried about going to a clinic where people may be sick, try a drive through vaccination option, where you can receive your vaccine in the parking lot without ever having to enter the clinic.
Illness from influenza is preventable, and you can be part of the solution. Make an appointment today to see your NP and get your flu vaccine.