If it seems like an unusually high number of people around you are coughing, sneezing, or otherwise complaining of feeling achy and miserable right now, you are not imagining things. According to health officials, this flu season is on track to be one of the worst that California has seen in the last decade. So far this season, 45 people have died from the flu in San Diego County, and the total number of flu cases is eight times higher than the seasonal average. The current number of people affected in Imperial County is not known, but as of last month, two people in the county had died from the flu and a total of 234 people had sought medical attention with flu-like symptoms, up from 71 from the year before at the same time. Given the severity of the flu this season, we thought now would be a good time to take a closer look at what the flu is and what you can do to avoid getting sick.
What is the flu?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness and can sometimes lead to death in seniors, young children, pregnant women, and those with underlying medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease. The flu is spread when infected people sneeze, cough, or talk and tiny droplets of saliva are emitted that inadvertently get in an uninfected person’s mouth, nose, or eyes.
How to prevent the flu
The CDC says that the first and most effective step for preventing seasonal flu is to get the flu vaccine every year. Some people are reluctant to get the vaccine because they mistakenly think that getting a flu shot will make them sick, but Dr. Sayone Thihalolipavan, San Diego County’s Deputy Public Health Officer, says that this is a myth and that “It’s not scientifically possible to get the flu from the vaccine.”
Others are reluctant to get a flu shot because they don’t think that it will be effective. A recent report from Australia said that the vaccine had been only 10% effective in preventing the flu during their most recent flu season, but Lynnette Brammer, lead of CDC’s Domestic Influenza Surveillance Team, says that the vaccine’s effectiveness here is still being determined and that by the time the numbers are tallied, she expects the vaccine’s effectiveness to be closer to 30%. Brammer says that even if this year’s vaccine isn’t as effective as they’d like it to be, it’s still worth getting. “You still end up preventing tens of thousands of cases and hospitalizations, and you prevent a lot of deaths when you’re looking across an entire nation,” she said. In addition, getting a flu shot can help reduce the severity of the symptoms for anyone who does end up coming down with the flu.
A U.S. Navy veteran in San Diego is in the Intensive Care Unit after coming down with complications from the flu, and the family is now wondering whether getting the flu vaccine would have made a difference. Jennifer Burroughs said nobody in her family got the flu shot because they didn’t think it would help that much and that they’d be able to tough it out if they did get sick, but now she’s urging people to get the flu vaccine as soon as possible.
Many people mistakenly think that it is too late to get the flu shot if they haven’t gotten one already, but that is not true. Flu season runs through May, and cases of the flu typically peak in February, so there is still plenty of time to get vaccinated.
Doctors add that even if people aren’t worried about contracting the flu themselves, they should consider getting a flu shot anyway to protect others. Dr. Kristi Koenig, medical director of the county’s emergency medical services system, says that “Even if you don’t feel that you need a flu shot to protect yourself, you can still pass the flu to someone else before you even have symptoms, and the flu could end up being deadly for that person, especially if they’re older or very young,” Koenig said.
In addition to getting a flu shot, doctors recommend that people stay away from those who are sick and that we all wash our hands frequently to reduce the chances of picking up the flu virus from a surface that has been touched by a sick person. People should also refrain from touching their eyes, nose, and mouth as much as possible, as this can get the virus into their system if they’ve touched an infected surface.
What to do if you get the flu
If you think you may have come down with the flu, don’t panic. Most people will recover on their own within a week or two and the worst symptoms usually subside after a few days. If you’re feeling under the weather, there are many tried-and-true, natural remedies that may ease your suffering and help you recover more quickly. There are antiviral drugs that can help people recover from the flu as well, but the CDC says that most people with mild symptoms don’t need medical treatment or antiviral medication. Seniors, pregnant women, those with underlying medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease, and parents of young children should call their healthcare provider if they think they may have come down with the flu. Anyone experiencing severe symptoms such as high fever, difficulty breathing, or severe or persistent vomiting should go to an emergency room right away.
Doctors also emphasize that it’s important for people with the flu to stay home unless they are seeking medical treatment. If you do need to leave home, wear a mask and wash your hands frequently to help prevent spreading the disease to others. And don’t be a hero and try to go to work. You’ll be putting other people at risk of getting sick, and the Center on Policy Initiatives reminds people that it’s your right to receive your full pay on your sick day, regardless of whether you are a full-time, part-time or temporary employee. Stay home and rest until you feel better. The work can wait.
If you live in San Diego County and would like more information about the flu and where to get the flu vaccine, visit the Health & Human Services Agency’s website for the updates. Residents of Imperial County can get additional information about the flu from the Imperial County Public Health Department.