Brace for flu season: Warning signs and prevention

Mother checking temperature of her sick son who has thermometer in his mouth and is lying in bed

From painful headaches to body aches to lack of energy, coming down with influenza (flu) is no fun at all. When it strikes some people, the virus can be more dangerous and even life-threatening.

Yes, the flu can be fatal especially for the most vulnerable people in our population: The very young, the elderly and those who are immunocompromised.

Man wearing suit and tie

Ralph Griffin, MD, co-medical director of emergency medicine at HCA Healthcare’s Coliseum Northside Hospital said: “Flu season tends to peak between December and February, but we’ve already started seeing a handful of cases in our emergency room this year.  While the majority of people who get the flu fully recover, the flu can be particularly worrisome for those who fall into high-risk categories. That includes children, pregnant women, senior adults, and those with certain underlying medical conditions.”

People most at risk
Because of their weaker immune systems, children under the age of five – and even more so under age two – are especially vulnerable to the flu. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that each year, more than 20,000 children younger than five are hospitalized for flu-related complications.

Pregnant women
Due to changes in their immune system, heart and lungs during pregnancy, pregnant women are at higher risk of severe flu. This sensitivity lasts for up to two weeks after giving birth. The flu can even cause problems with the pregnancy, like premature delivery.

Adults 65 and older
As people get older, their flu-fighting immune systems become frail. The CDC estimates that between 80 and 90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in seniors over 65.

Those with medical conditions
The flu weakens the body and can exacerbate an already existing health problem, which is why people with certain conditions may have a harder time coping with the virus. These conditions make people more susceptible to flu complications like pneumonia, and having the flu can make these other health problems worse. The best example is diabetes. Infections like the flu make it harder to control blood sugar. Some of the most common conditions that may worsen from the virus include: asthma, diabetes, neurological conditions, chronic lung disease, heart disease, liver and kidney disorders, blood disorders, weakened immune systems due to disease or medications, and obesity.

Anyone with these conditions who begins to experience flu-like symptoms should talk to a doctor and take the proper precautions.

When emergency care may be necessary
A normal case of the flu usually comes on suddenly and lasts anywhere from one to two weeks. People may have a fever or chills, cough, sore throat, headaches, fatigue and muscle aches.

For those who may be more susceptible to the virus, however, more serious complications may occur, such as pneumonia, sinus or ear infections, bronchitis, and seizures.

Anyone experiencing the following warning signs should contact a doctor or visit an emergency room:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Chest or belly pain
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Symptoms that get better, then return with fever and worse cough
  • Severe dehydration

In infants and children, watch for trouble breathing, a high fever with a rash, trouble urinating, lack of tears when crying or skin that is bluish in color.

According to the CDC, in the 2016-2017 flu season, there were more than 18,000 hospitalizations for influenza-like illnesses. Last season, nearly 100 children died from seasonal influenza.

The best bet for prevention
Dr. Griffin says that the emergency room is always ready to care for anyone, no matter the emergency, but the flu is a condition that can often be prevented.  He says, “The flu shot is an effective tool to fight flu.  The vaccine can prevent illness altogether, shorten the duration of the disease if you do still get the flu, or can reduce the number of complications that might arise.”

The CDC recommends everyone six months and older receive a flu vaccination each year. Research shows that vaccination typically reduces flu risk by more than 50 percent. It also makes the illness less severe and protects against these dangerous complications.

Protect yourself. Get your flu shot today.

Coliseum Northside Hospital is located in Macon, Ga., and is part of the HCA Healthcare South Atlantic Division.

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