By Ann Guerrisi-Hawn, Penn State
Influenza season is up and running again. One of the first Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) reports of influenza for this season was in late summer among 33 persons in a nursing home in southeastern Pennsylvania. Since that time, sporadic cases have occurred. Recently, the DOH reported rising numbers of flu cases throughout the commonwealth, including severe illness in Lehigh Valley. Cases have been caused by the same H1N1 flu that appeared in 2009, as well as other types of flu virus. It’s important to know what you can do now to protect yourself and those around you from getting sick.
Flu viruses are spread mainly through the coughs and sneezes of people who are sick with the virus. You could also pick up flu virus if you touch contaminated surfaces and then you touch your nose or mouth. For example, if you shake hands with an ill person who has recently held a contaminated tissue or if you touch a recently contaminated doorknob, the flu virus could be transferred to your hand — if you then rub your nose, you could become infected.
Flu infection can cause a wide range of symptoms, including fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headache and fatigue. In addition, particularly with the H1N1 virus that first appeared in 2009, many people also have nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. It’s important to know that while most people recover uneventfully, some persons can become very sick from flu.
Those at highest risk include:
- — Children aged 6 months to 4 years
- — People aged 50 years or older
- — Pregnant women
- — People with certain chronic medical conditions (e.g., asthma, weakened immune systems) who are at higher risk for complications of influenza.
- — People who live with or care for any of the following: children younger than 6 months old, adults aged 50 years or older, or people with certain chronic medical conditions (e.g., asthma, weakened immune systems) who are at higher risk for complications of influenza.
- — Residents of nursing homes or other chronic-care facilities
- — Health care personnel
- — American Indians/Alaska Natives
- — Persons with body-mass index 40 or greater
Vaccination is a critical component of defense against influenza. Although there are many different flu viruses, the seasonal flu vaccine protects against three seasonal viruses that research predicts will be most common — the 2009 H1N1 is part of the mix for this season’s influenza vaccine. Flu vaccine is recommended for everyone ages 6 months and older.
To find locations offering flu vaccine, visit here or talk to your primary care provider.
What else can you do to guard against spread of flu (and other respiratory viruses)? Vaccination is important, but it’s not 100 percent protective.
- — Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth–because if somehow you’ve picked up virus on your hands, you could accidentally inoculate virus on these mucous membranes. Alcohol-based sanitizers are effective in killing flu on your hands.
- — Cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm (at your elbow) to keep illness from spreading through droplets dispersed into the air.
- — If you use a tissue to wipe your nose or mouth, discard the contaminated tissue and promptly wash your hands.
People who are sick with a flu-like illness (fever plus at least cough or sore throat and possibly other symptoms like runny nose, body aches, headaches, chills, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea) should stay home and keep away from others for at least 24 hours after fever is gone. Other restrictions apply to health care workers. If you need to seek medical care, upon arrival to the health care facility, ask for a mask to wear while you are being evaluated. This is another way you can help prevent others from getting sick.
For more information on flu, visit the Centers for Disease Control’s flu page online.