Managing the Flu or Flu-Like Symptoms
If you have the flu—influenza—you can pass it to others as much as six feet away. It’s a highly contagious respiratory illness, and it can be very serious. The staff of Wayne Memorial’s Emergency Department (ED), which saw six-to-10 cases of influenza the first week of January alone, wants to help stop the spread of the disease.
“People are contagious even before symptoms appear,” says Patrick Pugliese, MD, medical director of the ED, “because the virus enters the body one to four days before the victim starts feeling symptoms, such as fever, chills, sore throat and muscle aches.”
In Pennsylvania, up to two million people get the flu each year and between 120 and 2,000 people die of flu complications annually. While anyone can get the flu, children under age two and adults over 65 are more apt to develop complications, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus and ear infections.
Most experts believe the flu is spread when droplets from coughing, sneezing or talking land in other people’s mouths or noses and are inhaled into the lungs. Less often, a person might get flu by touching a surface that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose.
“People can do very simple things to help contain the disease,” adds Dr. Pugliese. “For example, if you come in with symptoms and the staff asks you to put on a mask, compliance is one step in the right direction.”
Here are some other tips from the ED:
• Wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
• Stay away from sick people and do not share their linens or eating utensils unless they have been thoroughly washed
• Get vaccinated! Despite the fact that this year’s flu “drifted” genetically and the vaccine created to prevent it is not as effective as it could be, medical professionals say it can still help lessen the severity of symptoms, partly because it does contain other flu viruses. The Centers for Disease Control advocates the vaccination this season for the cross-protection it can provide against the H1N1 and B viruses that have not undergone significant drift.
• If you have flu symptoms: rest, take fluids, control a fever with Tylenol or Motrin
• When to seek help: if medicine doesn’t control symptoms such as rigors, severe fever, chills or vomiting with colored sputum, call your medical provider or come to the ED.
“Vomiting can be a serious symptom,” explains Dr. Pugliese, “and when coupled with other serious symptoms such as headache, high fevers, stiff neck and confusion, it could be a sign the flu has spread to your brain and its coverings.”
Pennsylvania is about halfway through the flu season. As of December, 2014, the Pennsylvania Department of Health estimated the disease was officially “widespread,” that is it is being reported in more than half the counties in the state—with Allegheny County (Pittsburgh area) registering the highest number of cases.
Treatment for serious cases of the flu usually involve medicines such as Tamiflu. “But Tamiflu really only shortens the progression of the disease by about one day,” says Dr. Pugliese. “Your best action is to try not to get sick in the first place.”
Photo: Patrick Pugliese, MD, medical director of Wayne Memorial Hospital’s Emergency Department.