Arm for the flu through immunization and hygiene

It's getting to be that time of year, and doctors say prevention is what it's all about

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 

Information sources on influenza

For more information about the flu, check out these sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Clark County Public Health.

Washington State Department of Health.

Get ready. Flu season is near.

But rather than fighting the fever, cough and body aches that accompany the flu virus, doctors recommend preventing the fight by arming yourself with a flu shot and good hygiene practices.

"We really stress prevention," said Dr. Jeremy Chrisman, The Vancouver Clinic's primary care medical director. "Not getting the flu, that's all about immunization."

Each year, federal health officials develop a vaccine that protects against three strains of the flu predicted to circulate the most. This year's shot protects against H1N1 (also known as "swine flu") as well as two other strains.

"That's the first key; the flu shot really works," Chrisman said. "The other big preventive standard is hand-washing and avoid touching your face."

Washing hands with soap and water — or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water aren't available — will remove germs and help prevent the spread of the virus, Chrisman said.

"The virus can live on surfaces, and you can pick it up from there," he said. "Hand-washing will not necessarily destroy the virus, but along with soap, it will take it off your skin."

Taking preventive measures now, while flu activity remains low in Clark County, is key, according to physicians.

Flu season typically runs from October through May, but it can flare up at any time. The past couple of years, flu season in Clark County and across the country has emerged later. Last year, local flu cases spiked in March and April, according to county health records.

There is no way for health officials to predict when the virus will start to spread this year, and the flu vaccine needs a few weeks to build enough antibodies to be effective, said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer.

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. Common symptoms are fever, body aches and a cough. While people with the common cold are still functioning in day-to-day activities, those who get the flu aren't so lucky, Chrisman said.

"People feel really bad with it," he said.

For those who do get the flu this year, Chrisman recommends continuing good hygiene practices and wearing face masks to avoid spreading the virus to others.

He also urges sick people to stay home from work or school. A good standard, he said, is to stay home until you're fever-free for 36 hours.

"If you're still spiking fevers, you're still probably contagious," Chrisman said.

While the flu virus will need to run its course, Chrisman said there are ways to lessen symptoms.

Fevers can be treated with over-the-counter products such as Tylenol or ibuprofen, which help bring down temperatures. Most over-the-counter cough medicines won't do much to stop the cough, but they can help lessen the severity, Chrisman said.

People who are younger than 2 or older than 65 should see a health care provider if they catch the flu, as they're most at risk for complications, he said.

While medical attention isn't necessary for most people, severe symptoms do warrant medical care, Chrisman said.

If Tylenol or ibuprofen isn't breaking the fever, or temperatures climb above 102 degrees, you should see a doctor, he said. People with trouble breathing, shortness of breath, pain or pressure when breathing, dizziness or confusion should also call their health care provider, Chrisman said.

Parents should seek medical care for kids who aren't drinking enough fluids to keep up with the fever, are breathing rapidly or are turning blue or purple, he said.

The flu affects people differently. For most young, otherwise healthy people, the flu will run its course in two to three days. Older adults, or those with existing respiratory conditions, may experience symptoms for seven to 10 days.


Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.