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Flu season is upon us

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As of last Friday, Oct. 26, there were 15 reported hospitalized cases of influenza this fall in Minnesota, with the state’s west-central region having two.

“The idea that a person can end up in the hospital demonstrates how ill you can become with influenza,” said Doreen Hanson, the disease prevention and control specialist with Horizon Public Health, which serves Douglas and surrounding counties. Hanson added that each year people do die from influenza.

The flu season typically occurs in the fall and winter, with the peak hitting anywhere from late November through March.

Last year’s flu season was one of the worst in recent memory. As of Oct. 6, a total of 183 pediatric deaths nationwide were reported to the CDC during the 2017-2018 season. This number exceeded the previously highest number (171 in 2012-13) of flu-associated deaths in children during a regular flu season. In Minnesota, there were five pediatric deaths related to influenza.

The CDC reported that 80 percent of the deaths occurred in children who had not received a flu vaccination.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, 6,446 people were hospitalized in Minnesota during the 2017-18 flu season. In Douglas County, 39 were hospitalized cases in Douglas County. Hanson said that does not count any of the cases in the 2018 winter months (January, February, March).

Prevention is key

The best way to prevent seasonal flu, according to the CDC, is to get vaccinated every year.

It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies that protect against the flu to develop in the body, so the CDC recommends getting vaccinated early in the fall, before flu season begins. Getting the flu shot by the end of October is strongly encouraged.

Several types of flu vaccine are available, Hanson said. The type of vaccine people can get depends on factors such as age, health conditions, pregnancy and allergies. Health care providers will know what type of vaccine their patients should get, she said.

“The most important thing is to get vaccinated. Don’t wait for a specific type of flu vaccine to be available,” she said.

People with an egg allergy can safely get a flu vaccine, Hanson said, and life-threatening allergic reactions to the flu vaccine are very rare. She advised people to talk to their health care provider if they’ve ever had a life-threatening reaction to a flu vaccine.

Getting the flu shot later in the season can still be beneficial and vaccinations should continue to be offered throughout the whole flu season, even into January and later.

There are many flu viruses and they are constantly changing. Flu vaccines protect against the three or four viruses that research suggests will be most common. The composition of U.S. flu vaccines is reviewed annually and updated to match circulating flu viruses.

Hanson shared some tips for the public to protect themselves against getting the flu:

• Get vaccinated.

• Avoid being around others who are sick.

• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, or cough or sneeze into your sleeve.

• Wash your hands often with soap and water, or an alcohol-based, waterless hand sanitizer.

• Protect infants by not exposing them to large crowds or sick family members when flu is in your community.

• Do not share drinking cups and straws.

• Clean commonly touched surfaces often, including door knobs, refrigerator handles, phones and water faucets.

Bitten by the flu bug?

If people suspect they have been hit with the flu, Hanson said to stay home, avoid contact with others, rest and drink plenty of fluids. For those in a high-risk group, such as those 65 years or older or people with asthma, Hanson suggested calling their health care provider.

If people come down with the flu and experience difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, sudden dizziness, confusion, severe or persistent vomiting or have flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with worse fever or cough, Hanson strongly advised going to the doctor or the emergency room.

Antiviral medicines can offer some protection if someone has been exposed to the flu.

“Contact your health care provider right away if you get sick with the flu and are at high-risk for complications from flu,” she said.

Cold vs. the flu

Influenza can be mistaken for the common cold. Hanson explained that the flu is a respiratory disease caused by a virus that attacks the nose, throat and lungs. Illness is usually mild or moderate, not requiring hospitalization.

However at times, she said, the flu can be severe, even leading to death. And she noted that the flu is not the same as the “stomach flu.”

Symptoms for influenza, commonly referred to as “the flu,” include fever, dry cough, sore throat, headache, extreme tiredness, fever and body aches. These symptoms usually begin suddenly and might be severe enough for people to stop their daily activities

Colds, she said, are generally less serious than the flu. With a cold, people are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Persons with a cold can usually keep up with their normal activities. And unlike a cold, the flu can result in serious health problems like pneumonia, bacterial infections and hospitalization.

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