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Second Opinion - Flu outbreak now epidemic

Lauren Langford, MD

The flu is now so widespread across the USA that it's officially considered an epidemic. Unfortunately the most common strain of flu this season, H3N2, is not a good match for the strains covered by the current vaccine, but the vaccine should still provide some protection.
Let's suppose you wake up in the morning coughing, sneezing, with fever and have recently been exposed to other people with the flu. It is likely you have the flu. The most common symptoms are fatigue, muscle aches, fever and chills. If your symptoms indicate the flu, it's likely that you have a virus and are contagious. However, you might still feel well enough to go to work. Should you?
If you suspect you have the flu, stay home from work and call a doctor. Although cold and flu might initially cause similar symptoms, the flu can cause serious complications such as influenza encephalitis - swelling of the brain - pneumonia, kidney problems and respiratory failure.
Whether you have a cold or the flu, you may decide to return to work while still contagious. If you have a cold, you may remain contagious for as long as you have symptoms. If you have the flu, you may remain contagious for up to seven days after becoming sick.
If you cannot stay at home, it's important to reduce your impact on others. Use the following simple tips to help keep everyone healthy.
• Avoid direct contact with co-workers - Less contact will make it less likely that they catch the virus from you.
• Cover your coughs and sneezes because viruses travel through the air.
• Wash your hands - Whether you use soap and water or alcohol-based gel, hand hygiene prevents the spread of illness by contact.
• If you stay at home, rest - Avoid close contact with members of the household.
• Drink plenty of water and clear liquids to prevent dehydration.
• Treat fever and cough with medicines you can buy at the store.
If you are a caregiver for people with the flu, avoid being face-to-face with the sick person. If possible, it is best to spend the least amount of time in close contact with a sick person.
When holding sick children, place their chin on your shoulder so they will not cough in your face. Wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and water. Make sure to wash your hands after touching the sick person. Wash your hands after handling their tissues or laundry.
If you get very sick, are pregnant, have asthma or diabetes, are 65 years or older or are otherwise at high risk of flu-related complications, call a doctor. Children under the age of five are at high risk for complications including death. The majority of the children who die from flu have not been vaccinated!
Antiviral drugs, requiring a prescription, can be used to treat the flu. Studies show that flu antiviral drugs work best for treatment when they are started within two days of getting sick. However, starting them later can still be helpful, especially if the sick person has a high-risk health condition or is very sick from the flu.
There are two FDA-approved influenza antiviral drugs recommended by CDC this season. The brand names for these are Tamiflu® (generic name oseltamivir) and Relenza® (generic name zanamivir). Tamiflu® is available as a pill or liquid and Relenza® is a powder that is inhaled. Note: Relenza® is not for people with breathing problems like asthma or COPD.
Our body's defenses work best when we follow our mother's advice - keep your hands out of your mouth, eyes and nose. Wash your hands with soap and water!
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