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February 1, 2017

It’s that time of year again – flu season.

According to several news outlets, the Connecticut Department of Public Health has seen a rapid increase in flu activity, but what is the flu? How do you prevent it? What should you do if you have it?

Influenza, also known as the flu, is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as a contagious respiratory illness caused by flu viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness and can sometimes lead to death.

What are the signs?
Many may mistake the flu with a cold, but it is different. The flu usually comes on suddenly, and people who have the flu often have some, or all, of the following symptoms:

  • Fever (or feeling feverish with chills)
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children)

How do I keep from getting the flu?
According to Jodi Parisi and Katie Benn, Middlesex Hospital’s infection preventionists, flu season varies, but is usually between October and April. It peaks in January and February.

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There are certain things you can do to keep from getting the flu. For example, Parisi and Benn urge you to avoid close contact with sick people and to cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue or a sleeve. Don’t use your hands! You should also clean your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth; and clean and disinfect surfaces that could become contaminated with germs.

Is it too late to get a flu shot?
No! Flu season can extend into April. As a result, getting a flu shot now can still be beneficial.

The flu vaccine can keep you from getting sick with the flu, or passing it on to someone who can become very sick or die from a complication of the flu, such as a child; a pregnant woman; or an adult with a weak immune system, chronic heart or lung disease or who is advanced in age. Complications can include pneumonia, dehydration, ear and sinus infections, and worsening of chronic medical conditions.

The flu vaccine works around 50 percent to 60 percent of the time. While not perfect, it is by far the best way to protect you and your loved ones from the flu.

What’s the difference between a gastrointestinal bug and the flu?
The Hospital sees so many people who mistake a gastrointestinal bug (GI bug) for the flu. A virus called Norovirus often causes a gastrointestinal bug. Norovirus symptoms are predominantly gastrointestinal and can include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Sometimes a fever may also be present.

A flu vaccine does not prevent Norovirus.

What should I do if I have flu symptoms?
If you think you have the flu, Dr. Rahul Anand, hospital epidemiologist at Middlesex Hospital, says to stay home and rest. This will help protect you from complications, and it will prevent the spread of the flu.

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You should also drink plenty of fluids and warm beverages, and take Acetaminophen to relieve fever and aches. If you have difficulty breathing, are unable to keep up with fluid or food intake, feel lightheaded or dizzy, are unable to think clearly, or have symptoms that do not improve within a few days, call your doctor.

Most people with the flu get better on their own within one to two weeks. Most healthy people develop an illness consistent with uncomplicated influenza, and these individuals do not need antiviral medications.

If using antiviral drugs, it is important that they be used early, ideally within 48 hours of symptom onset. These drugs are used to treat the flu in people who are very sick. For example, people who are in the hospital or a nursing home or those who have a high-risk medical condition. For more information about those who are at high risk for flu complications, visit www.cdc.gov/flu/pdf/freeresources/updated/treating-influenza.pdf.

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