December 11 - As colder months approach, Georgia is experiencing increased levels of influenza (flu) illnesses. Experts at Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center and St. Mary's Health Care System are urging area residents to take precautions to protect themselves and their families from the flu this season.
The flu is a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by microscopic flu viruses. Anyone can get the flu, even healthy people, and it can cause mild to severe illness and at times can lead to death.
“Serious problems related to flu can happen at any age, but some people are more likely to develop serious complications from the flu,” said Robert Sinyard, M.D., chief medical officer at Piedmont Athens Regional. “Complications of flu can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections and worsening of certain chronic medical conditions.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people age 65 years and older, children younger than five years old, pregnant women, and people with chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease are all at high risk for flu-related complications.
"Because the flu is so contagious and can have such deadly effects, it's not something to take lightly," said Titus Gambrell, vice president and chief nursing officer at St. Mary's. "People need to protect themselves and their families and, if they do get sick, take steps to reduce the risk of spreading it to others."
Both Gambrell and Dr. Sinyard advise that the most effective way to protect yourself against the flu is to get an annual flu vaccine. The flu vaccine protects your body against what research suggests will be the most common flu viruses that season.
“The flu vaccine works by trigging your immune system to fight flu viruses if you are exposed,” Gambrell said. The flu vaccine can reduce flu illnesses, doctors’ visits, and missed work and school due to flu, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations, according to the CDC. Flu shots are available at your county health department, physician offices, many pharmacies, and urgent care clinics.
Aside from the flu shot, other good preventive actions include covering your nose and mouth with the inside of your elbow or a tissue when you cough or sneeze, avoiding close contact with sick people, and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs.
“If you suspect you have the flu, consider seeing your primary care physician. There are medications, called antivirals that can make flu illness milder and shorten the time you are sick. Antivirals may also prevent serious flu complications,” Dr. Sinyard said. “If your doctor’s office is closed or you can’t get an appointment quickly, urgent care is a good option.”
If you are sick, both Gambrell and Dr. Sinyard advise staying home except to go to the doctor, to reduce the risk of spreading the flu to others.
The flu is contagious for a day or so before symptoms begin and for about 24 hours after a person’s fever breaks. It normally runs its course in 7 to 10 days, although fatigue may last longer.
For more information about the flu or the flu vaccine, visit cdc.gov/flu or talk to a physician.