Dr. Roger Hicks: Flu season is here
Winter is coming, the holidays are just around the corner, which means flu season is also here. In fact, we are already seeing cases every day at our urgent care clinic in Grass Valley. So, what can we do to avoid getting the flu this year?
When people talk about “the flu,” they can mean anything from a common cold to “stomach flu,” meaning vomiting and diarrhea caused by a virus. But the word “flu” comes from influenza, a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by a specific type of virus. Influenza causes widespread outbreaks in the winter months in climates like ours and at any time of year in the tropics. We have made tremendous advances in our understanding and treatment of influenza since the “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918 during which more than 50 million people died, or the more recent Hong Kong and Swine Flu pandemics. There are now national and global influenza surveillance systems; Yubadocs Urgent Care has been part of our national system for years. Still, influenza kills tens of thousands of people every year in the US, including children.
Symptoms range from mild to severe, but they usually start suddenly. The most common symptoms are fever, muscle aches, headache, cough, mild sore throat and fatigue. Not everyone has all of them, but people often feel like they’ve been hit by a truck.
Influenza can be serious, especially for young children, seniors and those with other medical conditions. That list of conditions making someone high risk for complications is long, and includes diabetes, obesity, lung problems such as asthma or COPD, heart, kidney liver and neurological conditions, as well as immunosuppression, whether by cancer treatment or HIV infection. Pregnant women within two weeks of delivery, and nursing home residents are also at high risk.
If you are feeling flu symptoms, the good news is there is a rapid in-office test for influenza and it is one of the few viral illnesses for which there is a specific treatment. Unlike antibiotics, which kill existing bacteria, antivirals prevent viruses from multiplying. Therefore, to be effective, these medicines must be started early in the illness, ideally within the first 48-72 hours. But they still can be helpful if started later, especially for those at high risk for complications. Antibiotics are ineffective against viruses.
We all know an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that is especially true in healthcare. You can help limit the spread of the flu through cough etiquette (covering your mouth and nose when coughing), frequent handwashing, staying home from work or school when you are ill, and avoiding others when they are ill.
Scientists throughout the world recommend an annual vaccine as the best defense against influenza. Because the virus constantly mutates, the vaccine must be updated annually. Some years the virus changes dramatically after our vaccine was made; in those years it is not as effective. But it always provides some protection and is recommended for everyone six months of age and older. So, while decorating your home or shopping for presents for special people in your life, be sure to give yourself the gift of prevention if you haven’t already, before you find yourself suffering from this year’s version of the flu.
Dr. Roger Hicks is the Medical Director for Yubadocs Urgent Care in Grass Valley and the founding president and current Director of the California Urgent Care Association.
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