BANGOR, Maine- It is no secret that this year's influenza season is frighteningly severe Stories of patients stricken with this infection are becoming a regular feature in the news. The Maine CDC reports that influenza infection is currently widespread in our state - as is also the case for every other state. Last month on Healthy Living, I discussed the importance of getting a flu shot as the best protection available for each person individually as well as for the community at large. This advice stands: run, don't walk, to the nearest facility to get your flu shot if you have not yet done so! Unfortunately, one of the dominant strains of influenza circulating this year is known for causing severe illness and for rapidly mutating (changing) in ways that decrease vaccine effectiveness. Thus, a discussion of how to approach active influenza infection is timely as well.
Recognizing that you might have influenza is an obvious first step. Many of the symptoms of influenza are common to other viral infections, or "colds", though perhaps more miserable. Symptoms can include fever and chills, headache and body aches, sore throat, fatigue and congestion/cough. Vomiting and diarrhea can also occur but are less common. If you think you have influenza and you are an otherwise healthy person, you do not need to rush to the doctor's office. In fact, please don't. The other patients at that office could catch influenza from you, and may include people with a high risk of serious complications or death. This includes babies, the elderly, and people with lung, heart or other ongoing problems. If you are not in a high risk group the most important thing you can do is to stay home even limiting your contact with household members as much as possible. It is recommended that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your last fever without medication.
Good self-care including drinking lots of fluids, getting plenty of rest, and taking over-the-counter medications for relief of symptoms such as fever and congestion is all that is needed for most people in this group. If you are in a higher risk group or live with someone who is, you should contact your doctor and let them know you may have influenza. They might want to give you and/or your household some special antiviral medication. This medication - like the vaccine - isn't 100% effective but it may decrease the severity and length of the infection and decrease the risk of developing dangerous complications like pneumonia. It may also protect against spreading the infection to any close vulnerable contacts. This medication works best when given early, ideally within 2 days of getting sick.
Likewise, anyone who has symptoms beyond "normal" sick should seek medical help right away even if they have no known risk factors for severe disease. These symptoms include any difficulty breathing, bluish color, lethargy, severe dehydration, or if symptoms improved then worsened. Though high risk groups are most vulnerable, influenza infection has the potential to be devastating to all. Be well.