Flu watch: H1N1 virus causes early start to flu seasonAs an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist for SMDC Health System, I am charged with staying on top of the vast array of flu information. This includes updates from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and state health departments.
By: Timothy Burke, M.D., For the Duluth News Tribune
As an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist for SMDC Health System, I am charged with staying on top of the vast array of flu information. This includes updates from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and state health departments.
As a service to its readers, the Duluth News Tribune has asked me to write a column to provide information on how you can protect yourself and your family from the flu in the coming months.
When people ask what the most important thing is they can do to prevent the flu, I tell them to get a flu shot. The problem is, right now the only kind of flu we are seeing is the H1N1 strain, formerly called swine flu. As you may know, an H1N1 vaccine is in production, but not yet available. And when it does become available, there will not be enough to vaccinate everyone.
The H1N1 flu is spreading rapidly, but there’s no need to panic because it has proven to be milder than expected. Although it can be life-threatening for people who have underlying health problems, most people recover after five to seven days of feeling ill, just as they do with the seasonal flu.
You’ll probably never know for sure whether you had the H1N1 strain or not, because only patients who are hospitalized are being tested. However, of those recently tested, more than 90 percent of viruses are H1N1.
So if you are sick now, you can assume it is probably because of H1N1.
Most people who have H1N1 will never need to see a doctor. But there are certain groups of people who should seek medical care at the onset of flu symptoms, including pregnant women, people younger than 5 and older than 65, or those who have chronic medical conditions such as heart or lung disease, asthma or diabetes.
So how do you know if you have the flu, H1N1 or any other strain?
The symptoms for H1N1 and the seasonal flu are the same. They include a fever of higher than 100 degrees and one or more of the following: cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headache, chills, body aches or fatigue. Symptoms of H1N1 also can include vomiting and diarrhea, which are not typical of seasonal flu.
Unlike a cold, the flu comes on rapidly, and people often describe it as feeling like they’ve been hit by a bus. If you think you have the flu, stay home, put your feet up and have some chicken soup — just like Mom said. And be sure to stay home from work or school and avoid contact with other people until 24 hours after your temperature has returned to normal without the use of a fever reducer.
You should seek immediate medical attention in the event you experience any of these symptoms: difficulty breathing, confusion or dizziness, chest or abdominal pain/pressure or persistent vomiting. In a child, you also should watch for bluish or gray skin color, inadequate fluid intake and irritability to the point that he or she doesn’t even want to be held.
If you start feeling better after a few to several days of symptoms, but your fever returns and your cough becomes worse, it could be a sign of a dangerous bacterial infection and you should seek medical attention right away.
The best protection against any kind of flu is a vaccination. While the H1N1 vaccine is not yet available, you can get a seasonal flu shot today, and I recommend you do. If the H1N1 shot is made available to you, get that as well.
The bad news is you could get both the H1N1 and seasonal flu this year. The good news is there are other things you can do to prevent the flu besides getting vaccinated, and I will share those with you next week.
Until then, stay informed, don’t panic and take care.