Flu season typically peaks in January or February, and this year appears to be no exception. It seems that everybody's talking about it. What does it look like this year? How can we prevent it? How can we keep from spreading it if we do get sick?Influenza is an ancient deadly disease, first described by Hippocrates more than 2,400 years ago. Since then, it has killed millions and made countless more ill. The most lethal pandemic was the 1918 flu, when 50 to 100 million people died from the Spanish flu. Note that this flu was truly worldwide, but in order to maintain morale, wartime censorship kept it out of the news in those countries involved in WWI. Spain, however, was neutral, so information spread freely about the impact of the flu there. The result was that it was dubbed the "Spanish Flu!" The most common way to spread an influenza virus is from person to person. Infected people exhale, cough, or sneeze, and virus-containing droplets fly through the air into the noses and mouths of others nearby. A virus can also be transmitted when infected people touch counters, doorknobs, phones or any surface. If a healthy person touches that surface before the virus has a chance to die, and then introduces it into their mouth or nose, they are exposed. To prevent the spread of disease, always cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing; wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth; and avoid close contact with others while you are sick by staying home for at least 24 hours after any fever is gone. According to the CDC, we are able to infect others from the day before symptoms appear up until five days after we become ill. Because symptoms develop one to four days after the virus enters the body, we can pass on the flu virus to others well before we are aware that we are sick. This year's virus is not unusual. It starts out with a sudden onset of chills, fever, aching muscles, and general malaise. Next comes cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body ache, headache, fatigue, and for children, possibly vomiting and diarrhea. It's a very serious concern for certain segments of the population. High risk groups include those over 65 or younger than two; pregnant women; those with chronic health problems such as asthma, heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes, kidney and liver disease; and American Indians. Typically, the symptoms will be enough information to allow your doctor to determine whether you are suffering from the flu. In a hospital setting, blood tests will be done to determine for certain whether it is the flu. A case of the flu is usually treated with simple comfort care to minimize the symptoms. Note that the flu virus is, indeed, a virus. Antibiotics will not help, and they are vastly overprescribed for illnesses like this, that have nothing to do with bacteria. Antiviral medication such as Tamiflu, available only by prescription, can shorten the flu's severity and duration, but must be given as early as possible (preferably within two days from the start of symptoms). These antiviral meds are generally given to those who are at highest risk for serious cases of the flu. The good news is that we do have flu vaccines. It's not too late to get vaccinated, although it will take about two weeks for it to kick in. Every year, scientists project which particular strains of flu will be most active for the coming flu season. A unique vaccine is developed to include those specific strains. The injectable flu vaccine is made of dead virus, so it can't actually give us the flu. On the other hand, the nasal vaccine, intended for healthy people between the ages of two and 49, is made from a live weakened virus. Both vaccines cause our bodies to develop antibodies against most of this year's flu strains. Current recommendations are that everybody over six months of age should get a vaccine. There is now even an egg-free vaccine available for those with allergies to egg products. Be safe this flu season. Please take extra measures to avoid crowded public spaces where people might cough, sneeze, or breathe on you. Wash your hands frequently, especially when touching public doorknobs, railings, counters, etc. Your doctor doesn't need the extra business! Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
********** Published: Jan. 23, 2014 - Volume 12 - Issue 41