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This time of year if you ask any healthcare provider what one thing they’d like most, it could be to eliminate calling the gastrointestinal bug causing diarrhea, intestinal pain, and nausea the “flu.” That “flu” won’t kill you unless you become extremely dehydrated. Influenza, the real flu, has been on a rampage this year causing emergency room overload and deaths among young and old alike.

This influenza season seems worse than usual because some of those who have died from the virus are young, or middle-aged, and otherwise in good health. More typically, the virus is most dangerous for the elderly, young children, and those with compromised immune systems. The rate of hospitalization is the highest since the CDC began tracking flu-related hospitalizations in 2010. The CDC has also reported the deaths of 53 children from flu-related illness: 80% of those children had not received the vaccine.

“If you have influenza,” says Dr. Maggie Mangold, a physician at the Vinton Family Medical Clinic, “your doctor can decide if antiviral medications (such as Tamiflu) are right for you.  We typically treat those at highest risk, which includes the very young, the very old, pregnant women, and those diagnosed with various chronic diseases.”

What to do now:

1.) Get vaccinated. The influenza season may last later than usual this year, and it isn’t too late to get some measure of protection. Even with a low estimate of this year’s vaccine effectiveness, a one-in-ten, or three-in-ten chance of avoiding serious illness is a margin of safety worth having.

2.) Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your eyes or nose. Some influenza viruses can live for hours on surfaces like tables, doorknobs, phones, and keyboards. Keep surfaces and hands as clean as you can.

3.) Catch your coughs and sneezes in tissue for the sake of others, if not yourself. Influenza viruses are spread mainly by droplets in the air from coughing and sneezing.

4.) Recognize the difference between common colds and influenza and visit your doctor if in doubt. Influenza most often includes extreme muscle aches and fever above 100 degrees. If your visit to a healthcare provider is because of concern about having influenza, put on a mask provided at the door; you’re being respectful of others and those working in the healthcare facility.

5.) Lastly, don’t forget to get vaccinated early next year. Put it on next fall’s calendar now while its fresh in your mind. Make yourself a promise to get vaccinated and encourage others to get vaccinated as well. Busy schedules and our tendency to confuse the seriousness of influenza with the inconvenience of the “stomach flu” will work against us next year as well, but the virus causing influenza will be back again.

Graphic decribing the differences between the cold and the flu
Infographic with facts about the flu virus