California has already had its first flu-related deaths of the season, the state Department of Public Health reported earlier this month, and thousands more will die nationwide because of flu-related illnesses in the coming months.
Flu season is here and it won’t take long before many of us know someone who is absent from work or school because of it.
Last flu season, Valley Children’s Hospital had 408 flu-related visits to its emergency department. Fresno County’s Department of Public Health reported between one-in-three and one-in-four absences was flu related during the 2016-17 school year, according to participating school districts’ records.
The flu results in more than 11 million added hospital visits and 300,000 more hospital stays, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But there is one sure way to significantly cut your chance of influenza and its symptoms: Vaccination.
A single inoculation will nearly eliminate your chances of contracting severe disease and it will keep others from falling prey, too.
Generally, the flu starts spiking between December and February, but the season is unpredictable with peak numbers of illnesses sometimes occurring as early as October or as late as March. This is the most compelling reason for the recommendation to get the flu vaccine as early as possible. This year’s vaccine is widely available now.
Only about 36 percent of Americans were vaccinated for the flu in 2015-16. If flu vaccination rates increased just five percent in 2015-16, the number of flu-related illnesses would have fallen by 500,000 and flu-related medical visits by 230,000. An additional 6,000 hospitalizations would be prevented, too, the Centers for Disease Control reports.
Dangerous for old and young
Of the estimated 12,000 people who died from the flu and related illnesses in 2015-16, nearly two-thirds, were over the age of 65. . Another 20 percent were among those between the ages of 50-64.
Another age group at risk is those younger than 2. The youngest among us are at substantially greater risk of hospitalization than older children. If not treated early, complications such as pneumonia, are more likely in children with high-risk conditions, including asthma, diabetes, blood disorders and other medical issues that require long-term aspirin therapy.
Almost half of the more than 400 children estimated to have died in the 2015-16 flu season did not have a high-risk condition. That number may be two to four times greater when other medical complications are factored in, the CDC reports. Because of the high number of those lacking underlying conditions, it is imperative that your child, even if healthy, gets vaccinated.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the California Department of Public Health recommend annual flu vaccines for those six months of age and older. Pregnant women are also considered a high risk of developing flu-related symptoms and should be vaccinated.
The flu can cause high fevers and breathing difficulties in infants and small children. Other symptoms include cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, chills, fatigue and body aches. Children may also suffer from nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.
During community outbreaks of influenza, the highest incidence occurs among school-aged children.
Secondary spread to adults and other children within a family is common. Doctors recommend that those suffering flu-like symptoms stay home from work or school because the flu is highly contagious and spreads quickly.
Although the large majority of children with influenza recover fully after three to seven days, previously healthy children can have severe symptoms and complications.
Containing the spread
To stop spread of flu and other respiratory illnesses:
▪ Stay home when sick
▪ Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze with a tissue or a sleeve and properly dispose of
the used tissue
▪ Wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
▪ Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
And, if you are still debating whether to get vaccinated, there is one more statistic to consider.
Vaccinations are estimated to have prevented more than 5 million flu illnesses, 2.5 million medical visits, 71,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths in 2015-16 alone, the CDC said.
Remember, the flu is a virus, so prescription antibiotics will not work. Symptoms can be treated with over-the- counter pain relievers, Tylenol, Motrin and others, drinking fluids and getting extra rest. Most flu illnesses do not require a visit to the emergency room. If your symptoms are more severe than expected or aren’t getting better as expected, see your healthcare provider.
Dr. Karen Dahl, M.D., is Valley Children’s vice president, quality and safety, and is a board-certified pediatric infectious disease doctor. Connect with her at Kdahl1@valleychildrens.org.