As the weather becomes cooler and the leaves start to change, many of us in healthcare start thinking about the flu. Influenza, or “the flu” is a respiratory illness caused by a virus that brings on a fever, dry cough, sore throat, muscle aches, tiredness, and headache. The flu is easily spread to others in close contact through coughing or unwashed hands. Influenza is often confused with the stomach flu, which causes stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea. However, these symptoms are rarely present in influenza.
While most cases of influenza are mild and can be treated at home, some people become very ill with influenza and need to be hospitalized. Sadly, Minnesota saw 2,522 people hospitalized and 126 deaths from influenza last flu season. People that tend to become very ill from influenza include people over 65 years old and those with chronic health conditions like COPD, diabetes and heart disease.
There have already been confirmed cases of influenza in long-term care facilities this flu season in Minnesota. Fortunately, and as most people are aware, there is a vaccine for influenza, known as the “flu shot.” The vaccine is offered every year – Fall through Spring – and contains the flu virus strains that experts think will be most harmful this flu season. Vaccination is the best way to prevent yourself from getting and spreading the flu. Flu shots have been shown to be very safe and effective against the flu. Rarely, people who are vaccinated still become sick with the flu. However, the illness tends to be much milder than people never vaccinated. It is important to know that the flu shot cannot give you the flu as it contains no living viruses. Rather, the shot has virus parts or killed viruses that cannot make you sick, but still trigger your immune system to protect you from future flu viruses.
Flu shots are currently available at most retail pharmacies, doctor’s offices, and walk-in clinics and are covered free-of-charge through Medicare and most private insurance plans. You or your loved one’s care facility may even arrange special days for a nurse to come and give flu shots. Vaccination against the flu is recommended for everyone, but especially those at higher risk for becoming very sick. People over 65 years old should receive the high-dose version of the flu shot. This is because the immune system loses strength with age. The high dose flu shot has four times the amount of vaccine than a regular flu shot, which ensures that the body makes a strong enough immune response to protect older adults.
If you are over 65 years old or have chronic health conditions and develop symptoms of influenza, it is important to contact your doctor or healthcare provider. While there is no cure for the flu, there is medicine that can help lessen the symptoms and length of time you are sick. This medicine needs to be given within a few days of becoming sick, so it is important to seek care right away.
The Minnesota Department of Health has great resources on the flu. You can visit https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/flu/basics/index.html for more information.
Although the air is cooler and the leaves are turning, it doesn’t mean you will have to deal with the flu. Protect yourself by getting your flu shot if you haven’t already and increase your hand washing. Then be sure to enjoy this weather before the snow flies!
-This article was written by Anna Dudzik, DNP, APRN, FNP-C, Medical Education Director at Twin Cities Physicians.