Achoo! It’s The Flu Again

February 5, 2018
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By Jay Cook |

If  you’ve been lucky enough to dodge those flu germs, don’t count yourself safe yet because this season’s flu virus is one of the worst in recent memory. The state Department of Health has tallied 7,332 cases since Oct. 7, nearly 3,000 more recorded infections than this time last year.

With an increase of patients hospitalized with influenza and even more nursing their headaches, fever and other symptoms in their own beds, flu season has hit the Garden State hard. Each of New Jersey’s 21 counties are on high alert.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says this coast-to-coast outbreak is the first one of this magnitude since the agency began keeping track. In fact, this year’s predominant flu strain, H3N2, is one of the most severe strains of the flu virus.

“It’s very rampant not only in our own county or New Jersey, but actually nationwide,” said Nasir M. Ahmad, M.D., infectious disease physician at Riverview Medical Center, who says there are quite a few patients in the hospital right now. “All states are seeing this very bad flu season.”

Ahmad says it’s important that everyone understands that flu can be especially dangerous in young children and the elderly and anyone with a history of heart problems and lung problems.

“Anyone that is otherwise healthy and young, if they get flu, needs to hydrate themselves or take Tamiflu,” he said. “Then they shouldn’t experience any complications.”

Tamiflu is an FDA-approved flu medication primarily for children two weeks old to adults of all ages.

Typically flu sufferers can be contagious 24 hours before the onset of symptoms. “That becomes a little bit challenging in controlling the outbreak,” Ahmad added.

This year’s strain, H3N2, seems to be particularly hard-hitting.

“Unfortunately, the vaccine is merely effective against this strain,” said Ahmad. “That might be another reason that this flu season is bad because even most of the vaccinated people are at risk.”

The CDC makes vaccines by using three to four prevalent strains of flu from the prior year, but “there’s no guarantee those strains will be the one that can cause an outbreak in the next year,” he said.

But even those who have not been vaccinated should still roll up their sleeves and get the shot.

“The vaccine is still recommended because the cross-benefit gives some protection against the other strains as well,” Ahmed said. “I would still go (get a vaccine) because even though it’s not as protective as it should be, the severity might not be as high if you had not received the vaccine.

This outbreak is particularly difficult. “I’ve been in infectious disease for the last 15 years and this is as bad as it can get,” Ahmad added.

Parents and caregivers should be weary about spreading the disease to children and the elderly. They’re the most adversely affected if they contract the flu.

“Because of the way children interact and play they are clearly at higher risk to get the flu,” said Margaret C. Fisher, M.D., chair, Department of Pediatrics at Monmouth Medical Center, an RWJBarnabas Health facility. “The best way is teaching them not to cough into their hands, but into their sleeve; schools are teaching this now. Cover the cough, but not with the hand, otherwise you’re just putting a whole bunch of virus onto the hand.”

Fisher said to be aware of touching door handles, phone receivers and the like, after someone with the virus has touched it.

She also suggests recognizing the “bubble” – staying 3 feet away from someone with the flu.

“Teach them to wash hands before touching their nose and eyes,” she said.

Most physicians agree it’s not too late to get the flu shot. For children, according to Fisher, the flu shot doesn’t work on children under 6 months. “If it’s the first time ever having the shot (8 years old or younger), must get two shots, one month apart,” she said. “It may be difficult now so late in the season but still worth it because flu season can last until end of March or the beginning of April.”

Fever, aches, cough and sore throat can be eased at home. If a child has “trouble breathing or trouble waking up, call the doctor,” Fisher said.  “Do not,” she stresses, “go to the emergency room. If you don’t have the flu yet, you’ll get it sitting in the waiting room. There’s so much flu in the crowded emergency rooms.”

Children under 6 months of age with flu symptoms should be evaluated by a physician. “It’s worse for younger children or those with any underlying problems – asthma, heart problems, diabetes,” she said. Fisher suggests checking in with the doctorto make sure you get an antiviral prescription of Tamiflu (tamivir) or Relenza (zanamivir) inhaler.

Over-the-counter medicines do “very little,” Fisher said. “The only thing it drains is your wallet.”

The rule is children should not be around others 24 hours after fever is gone and they are not on acetaminophen.

“Keep them home if they are sick. The biggest mistake we make is not keeping them home until they’re better.”

The bottom line, according to Fisher for flu patients of all ages, is to let them rest.

How To Avoid the Flu

  • Stay home while you are sick and up to at least 24 hours after your fever is gone
  • Do not visit people in the hospital
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing – if you do not have a tissue, cough into your elbow or shoulder
  • Avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth
  • Wash your hands often, especially after coughing or sneezing

This article was first published in the Feb. 1-8, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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