Flu season is a dreaded time every year around the winter holidays, and it has come on particularly strong this year. Specifically, this season the flu has peaked earlier and led to far more deaths than normal, a result of the H1N1 Swine Flu and others.
Helen Gearheard, an Emergency Department clerk at Auburn Medical Center for over 30 years, has experienced the phenomenon many times.
“The holiday season contributes to a bad outbreak like this,” said Gearheard. “We are closer to each other for Christmas gatherings [and] parties.”
Additionally, lack of preventative measures can contribute to its severity, both among individuals and especially among the population, according to Rose Bales, a long time Emergency Department Registered Nurse.
“People not getting flu shots contributes to flu outbreaks like this,” said Bales. “In addition, when people live in close quarters, disease spreads easily.”
Once infected, people’s reactions vary greatly from case to case. Those at particular risk should take even greater caution to avoid the infection, and to prevent the spread of disease it is extremely important that those who are sick avoid infecting others.
“The flu particularly affects the elderly and young,” said Gearheard, “as well as other immuno-depressed individuals.”
In certain cases, the flu’s already nasty symptoms can turn deadly.
“In most people, flu causes fever, respiratory symptoms, and body aches,” said Bales. “It may also cause nausea and vomiting.”
There are many things individuals can do to help mitigate the risk of flu, just like the common cold and other diseases, to avoid feeling sick, missing school or work, and falling far behind.
“Stay home! Wash your hands! Cough into your elbow or wear a mask,” said Gearheard, “and don’t go to work [or school] if you are sick.”
Preventative measures, such as a flu immunization injection, can also be effective against certain strains of the flu. It may not completely prevent illness, but it can certainly help symptoms after around one to two weeks.
“Get flu shots and ensure that people have established good hand-washing procedures,” said Bales. “Good hygiene and preventative care can help to mitigate the issue.”
This year the flu has expressed itself in different ways; its duration may vary, as well as its symptoms, both from person to person and year to year.
“It usually lasts around two weeks,” said Gearheard, “but we are finding that it has been lasting longer this year.”
A somewhat controversial topic are flu shots, and whether or not an individual should get them. Most medical professionals recommend them for anyone eligible.
“Shots don’t always keep it away,” said Gearheard, “but they help avoid worse [symptoms] due to different flu virus strains.”
Many medical centers ended up with more patients than they could care for due to the severity of the flu epidemic.
“Almost all hospitals in the area between Christmas and New Years were beyond capacity,” said Bales. “If people stayed at home, it wouldn’t spread as much.”
Institutionally, there are several things which could be improved for future years, including exercising caution in crowded facilities.
“Educate people on what care they can do at home,” said Bales. “Many people do not need to come in to the Emergency Department, and doing so may simply spread virus.”
One of the most powerful tools to reduce the spread of infection could be better education.
“Perhaps multilingual material or health education classes might help the public be more aware of flu precautions,” said Bales.
For this year, however, there is certainly hope, and the community can expect improvement in the near future.
“This year, the season started in December,” said Bales. “When the weather changes, flu infection rates tend to improve.”