By Dr. Dana Harris

Cases of the seasonal flu have reached epidemic proportions that has grasped almost every corner of the country.  In fact, it has officially crossed the epidemic threshold meaning the flu is spreading quickly and leading to more fatal cases than commonly expected according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Experts say what’s particularly unusual about this year is that the flu is hitting everyone at the same time! It’s on a pathway to be among the worst in 15 years. The outbreak has left parents wondering what they can do to protect their families against the flu and what to do once their child is diagnosed.

The CDC currently lists the 2017 to 2018 flu season as ‘moderately severe’ and warns it could get worse.  Scientists measure the spread and severity of the flu by looking at the percentage of doctor’s visits that are for flu or flu-like illnesses.  At Doctors Hospital and University Hospital of Augusta, the admissions from the flu are already 40 percent above those record-breaking numbers seen during the severe 2014-15 season. Typically for this time of year, the national average is a little more than 2 percent of visits. This year, it has skyrocketed to 7.7 percent of visits. Flu-like activity in Georgia this year is nearly 16 percent, or about eight times the average. What is particularly unusual about this year is that several people who have been sickened by one strain of the flu are now getting sick with another strain.  While the influenza A viruses have been dominant this year, the H3N2 influenza B viruses are now becoming more common and is becoming extremely possible for someone to get both strains.

The flu can be especially dangerous for those with weakened immune systems, such as the elderly, sick or very young.  More than 144 million doses of seasonal influenza vaccines have been distributed this year. The CDC stresses that it’s not too late to get vaccinated and highly recommends the vaccine, which can reduce flu illnesses and present flu-related hospitalization for everyone six months and older.

Symptoms of influenza, which spreads across the U.S. from November through March can include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches, chills and fatigue. Health officials state that people with the flu can be contagious the day before they start showing signs meaning they don’t even know they are spreading the virus around. What’s more ironic is that influenza can incubate in the body for one to four days before a person shows any signs of getting sick.

Despite your best efforts, your child is bound to get a cold or flu at some point in time.  However, it’s important to take a rational approach to handling the situation. Listed below are several common-sense practices on how to keep your love ones healthy and prevent the spread of the flu.

• It’s not too late to get the flu shot. Some protection is better than no protection. The flu season can last until May so if you haven’t gotten one, it’s not too late.  Experts urge everyone 6 months of age and older to get the flu shot, as it helps reduce the chance of illness and lessens the severity of the symptoms if you do fall ill.

• You know your child better than anyone else.   Watch your child closely!  Don’t hesitate to go to the emergency room, no matter what time it is, either day or night. Parents should listen to their gut feelings and instincts if your child becomes ill. Look for signs of high fever, a hacking cough, sore throat and body aches. Parents generally take great care of their kids and pediatricians trust in that ability. However, if you have a strong gut feeling that something doesn’t seem right, it’s okay to contact your doctor at once.

• Drink Fluids & Gargle Regularly.  If you end up getting the flu, it’s critically important that you control your symptoms.  You can start by drinking plenty of fluids and gargling with warm salt water. Gargling may help reduce swelling in the throat and loosen mucus.  Green tea is also recommended.  Green tea has catechins, a type of antioxidant which may help prevent the infection.

• Practice good hygiene. It is highly recommended that you use soap and water when washing your hands and when cleaning toys.  Use hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes on grocery carts and gym machines. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.  Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way.  Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu. Be proactive about following your health care regime as closely as possible. If you think you’ve got the flu or even what feels like a nasty cold, stay home!

• Avoid close contact with sick people.  Of course if you are sick, stay home and limit contact with others as much as possible.  If your child does become sick, the best approach is to keep them home.

• Sleep it off with lots of rest. Getting sleep and taking time to recuperate is the best thing you can do for yourself, your co-workers and your family.  And the truth of the matter is, when you are sick, you won’t feel like doing much of anything else.

• Good old fashion chicken soup.  A study published in the American Journal of Therapeutics showed that carnosine, a compound in chicken soup can help strengthen the body’s immune system and help fight off the flu in its early days.  Hot liquids can also alleviate nasal congestion, help you stay hydrated and soothe inflamed membranes in your nose and throat.

• Get in sync with zinc.  It’s amazing how zinc lozenges can help you feel better faster. “Particularly, if you start using them as soon as you feel flush,” says Neil; Schachter, MD, Medical Director of respiratory care department at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.  He’s also the renowned author of The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds & Flu.

• Boost your immunity system with healthy foods, herbs and vitamins.  Health expert Dr. Andrew Weil highly suggests battling winter illnesses with daily doses of vitamin C as well as the herbs echinacea and astragalus, both available at health food stores and vitamin shops in kid-friendly forms. Adding extra garlic to the diet and minimizing your child’s diary intake are also highly recommended.

• Bedtime Hygiene Rituals.  Keep your bed sheets freshly laundered during the flu season to banish lingering germs. If you can, install a cool-mist humidifier to ease nighttime breathing, suggests Dr. Weil. It’s also suggested that you add an extra pillow to elevate a stuffy child’s head, allowing nasal passages to drain and clear.

• The Healing/Renewal Phase.  In addition to the common intervention practices such as flu shots, antiviral drugs and visits to the doctor’s office, it may be essential to finish the course of medicines prescribed even if your child seems to be feeling well. Do your best to control those lingering microorganisms around the house by keeping all trash cans emptied, used tissue discarded, counter tops wiped off and cleaned thoroughly with the appropriate cleaning wipes. It may also be a great idea to throw out those germy toothbrushes after the illness passes. 

Officials say influenza will continue to circulate in the US for weeks to come, which means it’s not too late to get the flu vaccine which is perhaps the first and most significant step in protecting and providing immunity against the impact of the flu virus. When it comes to keeping you and your family healthy and well this winter season, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

This article appears in the March 2018 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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