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It's flu season: What you need to know

Influenza

With the arrival of colder weather also comes the influenza virus, otherwise known as the flu. The flu is a common viral respiratory illness we see year after year in the emergency department. 

“We are entering flu season,” says Howard Chang, MD, director of the ER at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis. “Traditionally starting in November, the number of flu cases we see in the ER starts to climb.” 

Distinguishing the flu virus from the other numerous respiratory infections can be extremely difficult. Flu symptoms can include a cough, congestion and a runny nose. Patients may also experience a fever, sore throat, body aches and headaches. Fatigue is also quite common. 

“Flu testing is not commonly performed because it does not usually affect how we treat patients with the virus,” says Dr. Chang.

Although the flu is common and rarely a life-threatening medical condition, he says patients are hospitalized every week during flu season. 

Don’t spread the flu! 

“The flu virus spreads by respiratory droplets that fly through the air whenever someone coughs or sneezes,” says Dr. Chang.

He highly recommends you always cover your mouth whenever you cough or sneeze. Also, if you suspect you might have the flu, Dr. Chang says to wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. 

He warns that someone with the flu needs to be careful because it can be contagious for an entire week. 

Steps to take if you think you have the flu:

  • Fluids — Make sure you stay well hydrated. “Remember that when you’ve got a fever and the flu, your body will dehydrate much faster than when you’re well,” says Dr. Chang.
  • Protect others around you — The flu can be dangerous, although that is fairly uncommon. Nevertheless, prevent the spread of the virus by always covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Wash your hands religiously. Also, wear a face mask if you have one. 
  • Call your doctor — Some patients are good candidates for the influenza antiviral drug treatment. If you are ever unsure of what to do or whether you would be a good candidate for the treatment, please talk to your health care provider.  As a side note, because the flu is not caused by bacteria, antibiotics are almost never needed.
  • Stay home and rest — Unless you need to seek medical attention, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone.

When to go the ER

“The majority of patients with the flu do not need to be seen in the emergency department,” says Dr. Chang.

Occasionally, though, the flu will develop into something more serious, such as pneumonia.

“If you start developing confusion, significant shortness of breath, prolonged fevers, or intractable vomiting, you should immediately go to the ER,” says Dr. Chang. “Or, if your flu symptoms start to improve and then you start to take a turn for the worse, you may be developing a flu complication.”

Who is at higher risk for complications?

The elderly, young children, pregnant women and those with a weakened immune system are at higher risk for flu-related complications, says Dr. Chang. 

If you are one of the above, you should have a lower threshold to visit the ER. 

“These patients may be good candidates for an influenza antiviral medication, but the majority of patients do fine without any prescription medications.”

Dr. Chang has one last piece of advice. 

“Get vaccinated,” he says.“Everyone 6 months and older should get the flu shot every year. This is such an important and effective method of preventing transmission that, with rare exception, every staff member in the emergency department and hospital gets a flu shot annually.” 

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