A doctor’s view: Most cases of influenza can be handled at homeThe flu season has hit hard here in the Northland and around the country. As part of the infectious disease department at Essentia Health, my colleagues and I care for people who have the most serious cases of the flu — and we have already had many patients who needed to be hospitalized.
By: Dr. Timothy Burke, for the News Tribune
The flu season has hit hard here in the Northland and around the country. As part of the infectious disease department at Essentia Health, my colleagues and I care for people who have the most serious cases of the flu — and we have already had many patients who needed to be hospitalized.
Most people who come down with the flu don’t need a trip to the doctor’s office or emergency department. Flu symptoms can often be treated at home, but expect to feel miserable for three to five days.
Symptoms include a fever higher than 100 degrees and one or more of the following: cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headache, chills, body aches or fatigue. The flu comes on rapidly, and I often describe it as feeling like you’ve been hit by a bus.
If you are otherwise healthy and experience these symptoms, take it easy at home. Get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. Over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help with the fever, headaches and body pains. Don’t go back to work or school until 24 hours after your temperature has returned to normal without the use of a fever reducer.
However, certain groups of people should seek medical care at the onset of flu symptoms: pregnant women, children younger than 2 and adults older than 65, or those who have chronic medical conditions such as heart or lung disease, asthma or diabetes. These high-risk patients may be prescribed an anti-viral medication called Tamiflu, which can lessen the duration of the flu and the severity of symptoms — and could even prevent someone from needing to be hospitalized.
While it is less common, people who are normally healthy can become seriously ill with the flu or related complications. If you experience symptoms such as difficulty breathing, confusion or dizziness, chest or abdominal pain/pressure or persistent vomiting, seek immediate medical attention. 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.
We’re very concerned about signs that point to dangerously low blood oxygen levels, like blue lips or feeling like you’re going to pass out. In addition, if you start feeling better after several days of symptoms, but your fever returns and your cough becomes worse, it could be a sign of a dangerous bacterial infection.
The best protection against the flu is a vaccination — it’s not too late. Today, Essentia is offering flu shots from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. without an appointment at our First Street Building at 420 E. First St. in Duluth and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Essentia Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Superior at 3500 Tower Ave. There are lots of other opportunities in our community, such as retail pharmacies, to get a flu shot as well.
I can’t stress enough the importance of frequent hand-washing and covering your cough. To keep the flu or any respiratory virus from spreading, cough or sneeze into a tissue. Then throw it away and wash your hands before touching anything else. If no tissue is readily available, coughing or sneezing into your elbow or forearm can also prevent the spread of flu germs.
Washing your hands often and thoroughly for 15 to 20 seconds with soap and water will go a long way toward protecting you. You also can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
If you have someone at home who’s sick with the flu, remind him or her to follow these steps as well. You might consider keeping the sick person away from the common areas of the house with the door closed. At the very least, clean the bathroom daily with a disinfectant and try to disinfect other surfaces as well.
If a sick person must care for infants and children, it’s a good idea to wear a mask in addition to frequent hand-washing. At Essentia, we have masks available for patients to wear in waiting rooms to help prevent the spread of the flu. We’re also asking that hospital visitors be limited to immediate family, which means parents, spouses or significant others, and children.
I always say that flu season is unpredictable, and we don’t know how long this widespread flu activity will last. If we work together to prevent the spread of the flu — by getting vaccinated, staying home when we’re sick, washing our hands and covering our coughs — we can go a long way toward making our community healthier.
Dr. Timothy Burke is infectious disease specialist for Essentia Health.