As numbers being released tomorrow by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are expected to show, an ugly flu season just got uglier. “Since the holidays, we’ve seen an explosion in influenza throughout the country, and a large upsurge in patients hospitalized with influenza,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease expert and member of the CDC’s national surveillance team.
Right now, as hospitals nationwide are “bulging” with influenza patients, Schaffner says, the patients most typically sweating it out in backed-up waiting rooms are over 65. This group, he says, is hardest hit by the season’s more severe prevailing strain; they tend to develop the most serious complications of the respiratory virus, including pneumonia.
As for what you should do if you think you might have the flu in the middle of a major outbreak, follow these tips.
- Call your doctor. You want time on your side when it comes to treating influenza, so don’t hesitate to call your health care provider if you develop any of these familiar signs of the flu: fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue, sometimes diarrhea and vomiting.
- Take your Tamiflu. While shortages of this often-prescribed antiviral have been reported in places like California, Schaffner notes it’s still — for now — widely available in most states. The drug can help prevent serious flu complications, and while it’s most effective if prescribed early, Schaffner says new research shows that this antiviral can lessen the severity of the flu even several days into the illness.
- Keep up your fluid intake. Schaffner calls this the most important thing you can do at home, so critical is it to heading off another serious complication of flu (and fever) for those over 65: dehydration. Skip coffee and tea in favor of fruit juices, caffeine-free soda or water. If you don’t want an entire glass, keep up the small sips, day and night.
- Stay home. The CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (and that means gone without the help of medicine like Tylenol) except to get medical care. Flu is so contagious that some doctors’ offices will have you avoid their waiting room so as to not infect others. The CDC also recommends that you wear a face mask, if you have one, if you have to go out to get medical care or pick up a prescription yourself. Otherwise, cover your cough and sneezes with a tissue, and wash your hands often to keep from spreading germs to others.
- Don’t put off going to the hospital. It’s imperative you get medical care swiftly if you start to have trouble breathing or if your dry cough suddenly turns productive, especially if it produces green phlegm or streaks of blood. When in doubt, head to the hospital and don’t try to “tough this one out,” or to tough it out alone, if you can help it, Schaffner says.