Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Flu facts simplified

The flu is high on the ranks of national concern as we head into the flu season. I know the importance of education, in particular, prevention. Prior to opening Visiting Angels in 2002, I worked as an Infection Control Coordinator for the State of Michigan. www.visitingangels.com/annarbor

Sometimes the media can exaggerate the truth of the flu facts, so it’s important to know where to find the correct information. There are three primary organizations that monitor the spread and provide education on prevention and treatment, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Association for Professionals in Infection Control (APIC).

This quick quiz will test your base knowledge about the flu.


Many people still misunderstand what the flu is. Influenza is a viral respiratory infection, not a gastrointestinal infection. I have heard more people than I can count say they have the flu when their only symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea. Although certain flu viruses may include those symptoms, the primary symptoms of the flu are fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. I often describe the flu as a nasty cold, with your skin hurting. This simple explanation seems to help people understand the difference between a cold and the flu.

It is important to understand that antibiotics will not resolve the flu. Antibiotics are for bacterial infections, not viral infections. There are a few antivirals that can reduce the flu, but these medications are for specific viruses, and will only help if they are started quickly. Most people will miss the time frame waiting for the doctor appointment.

The CDC and WHO have been reporting on the H1N1 flu, otherwise known as the swine flu. The H1N1 is different than the typical seasonal flu because of the viral makeup. It has combined genes from pigs, bird (avian), and humans, which originated in Europe and Asia. The more complicated the gene makeup, the more factors that have to go into developing an effective vaccine.

The WHO has declared the H1N1 outbreak to be a pandemic, or a worldwide epidemic. The CDC and WHO have been discussing and preparing for a pandemic for years. There have been three other pandemics since 1900, and a few pandemic threats. The pandemics that occurred were the Spanish flu in 1918, the Asian flu in 1957, and the Hong Kong flu of 1968.

A typical seasonal flu in the US will cause approximately 36,000 deaths a year. Pandemics can cause millions of deaths. The CDC provides a map called FluView, which shows the national flu activity, state by state, week by week, throughout flu season. Michigan currently has sporadic activity. http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/updates/us/

Flu vaccines are still the No. 1 way to prevent flu-related death. The second most-effective prevention is hand washing, which also includes alcohol based hand gels. Third is to stay home if you are ill. According to the CDC, you should remain home at least 24 hours after the fever is gone.

Influenza is spread by droplets. When someone who has the flu coughs or sneezes droplets of the virus are expelled into the air. These droplets are too heavy to remain in the air, so we pick them up in surfaces. We touch an infected surface, then touch our mouth, eyes, or nose, and the virus is now introduced into our body. This is the reason for so much emphasis on handwashing.

I don't go anywhere without hand gel in my purse and car. Anytime I am out in public I use hand gel. Couging or sneezing into a tissue, and washing your hands, or using gel, can prevent thousands of people from getting ill, and keep you flu free.

There are categories of people at risk. Those include small children, pregnant women, those with compromised immune systems, and the elderly. People with respiratory and heart conditions should be especially careful. Facilities where a large amount of people reside or gather, like long term care facilities, need to be especially cautious.

If you are experiencing flu symptoms, do not go to a long term care facility or into a senior’s home. If you fall into any of the at-risk categories in particular, ask family and friends who are ill to refrain from coming to visit. Some see that as being rude, but if a family member or friend doesn’t have enough sense to stay home ill, you have no recourse but to protect your health.

Pandemics can be so severe that most businesses would close, emergency rooms would shut down, and millions would die. I know it is very difficult for employers to run a business when employees are calling in sick. If you don’t encourage sick employees to stay home, and they spread the flu throughout, you may not have any employees well enough to work. The CDC provides specific information for workplaces and employees. I highly recommend prevention preparation for your business. Provide information to your employees from the CDC, and alcohol based hand gel in several locations for easy access. Encourage sick employees to stay home, and make a contingency plan if several employees are out sick. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/workplace/index.htm

I hope we can all do our part to prevent the potential devastation of a pandemic, by following these simple actions.

For more information, CDC http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/qa.htm, WHO http://www.who.int/en/, a special site for the flu, developed by the CDC http://www.flu.gov/

To contact Angil Tarach with questions or comments email visitingangelswc@comcast.net, or call Visiting Angels (734) 929-9201

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