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Everything You Need to Know about the 2015 Flu Season

Deborah PaskoThe 2014-2015 flu season is proving to be a very challenging one. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States experiences epidemics of seasonal flu each year. At the beginning of January 2015, CDC data are showing elevated flu activity in a majority of states with increasing hospitalizations rates, especially in people 65 years and older. Below is a wealth of information about how to prevent flu infection as well as how to treat it if you suspect you’ve caught the flu virus. If you have questions about issues not covered here, be sure to call your doctor or pharmacist.

Why should I still get a flu shot? I heard that it doesn’t work this year.

The most common strain of the virus reported so far this season is influenza A (H3N2). According to the CDC, this strain has been linked in the past to higher rates of hospitalization, especially for those who are at high risk for complications, such as the very young, the elderly, and those with chronic health conditions.

Erika ThomasThis year’s flu vaccine included three strains of the influenza virus, based on scientists’ best prediction of which strains would be prevalent for this year’s flu season. Unfortunately, this year’s strain has changed, making the vaccine less effective than in years past.

Still, people should get vaccinated because it can both decrease the severity of illness caused by the virus and can also protect against other strains of the virus that are circulating, according to CDC. People who get the flu vaccine are 60 percent less likely to need treatment for the flu by a healthcare provider, which reduces antibiotic use, time lost from work and school, hospitalizations, and deaths.

I think that I have the flu. Do I need to see my doctor?

It is very important that adults seek medical attention immediately if you experience any of the following:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath,
  • Purple or blue discoloration of the lips,
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen,
  • Sudden dizziness,
  • Confusion,
  • Severe or persistent vomiting,
  • Seizures, and/or
  • Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough.

The advice for when to seek medical attention is similar for children. Seek medical attention immediately if your child:

  • Is breathing fast or having trouble breathing,
  • Has a bluish skin color,
  • Is not drinking enough fluids,
  • Has severe or persistent vomiting,
  • Is not waking up or interacting,
  • Is irritable and does not want to be held,
  • Has flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough, and/or
  • Has other health conditions and develops flu symptoms, including a fever and/or cough.

In infants, watch for the signs above as well as:

  • Inability to eat,
  • Trouble breathing,
  • No tears when crying, and/or
  • Significantly fewer wet diapers than normal.

I’ve been diagnosed with the flu… now what?

If you do get the flu, it is important to understand that the flu is a virus. Antibiotics treat bacterial infections only and do not treat viral infections. Antibiotics are ineffective against viruses and should not be used or asked for unless there are other symptoms associated with a bacterial infection.

Healthcare providers such as your doctor treat the flu with “supportive therapy,” which includes recommending the following:

If you are diagnosed with the flu, there are two antiviral drugs called Tamiflu® and Relenza® that can be prescribed for you to lessen the severity of the virus. Please note that these medications are generally reserved for high-risk patients, and not every person who gets the flu needs antivirals.

  • If your doctor prescribes one of these medications for you, you must take them for five days. It is important that you take all doses prescribed and do not stop early even if you feel better.
  • Make sure that you tell your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist about any existing kidney problems you may have because the dose of these medications may need to be adjusted.

What information do I need to bring to my doctor, urgent care center, or emergency room?

Because many people see a number of physicians and healthcare providers for different health conditions, your electronic medical record may not be available to other healthcare providers or hospitals. When visiting a doctor’s office and/or urgent care or emergency room, we recommend that you bring an updated and accurate list of your medications. It’s important to:

  • Be prepared to answer when you last took your medications,
  • Make sure you tell the person taking your medication history about any non-prescription medications you are taking, including how much and how often,
  • Make sure that you tell your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist about any allergies that you or your family member may have, and
  • Bring your medications with you if you take more than two medications. If your child is sick, be sure to bring his or her medications with you, especially liquid medications.

How can I prevent the flu?

You can prevent the spread of the flu by doing a few simple things. The following four steps are the same ones that hospitals use to prevent the spread of viral or bacterial infections:

  • Get vaccinated.
  • Wash your hands often and use the proper technique. The CDC recommends that you wash your hands for the length of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice (about 15 to 20 seconds).
  • Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing… the best way to do this is to use a tissue or, if one isn’t available, cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow. (Be sure to wash that piece of clothing before wearing it again.)   
  • Use disinfectants around your home that are effective against viruses. The flu virus doesn’t live long outside the body. It usually stays on surfaces for no longer than 24 hours unlike other viruses that can live on surfaces for days or weeks.

Most common household cleaners will kill the influenza virus when used per their instructions. If you use a bleach solution, dilute it with water according to the manufacturer’s guidelines, and make sure you are working in a well ventilated area.

For more information about flu prevention and treatment, visit www.flu.gov or www.cdc.gov/flu.

By Deborah A. Pasko, Pharm.D., MHA, Director, ASHP Medication Safety & Quality, and Erika L. Thomas, M.B.A., B.S.Pharm., Director, ASHP’s Section of Inpatient Care Practitioners