If you have suddenly started coughing, running a fever and are feeling awful, you may be joining an ever increasing number of Castlegar residents who are falling victim to influenza.
Almost everyone in town seems to know someone who has been experiencing flu-like symptoms and local doctors are reporting an increasing number of patients presenting with these same symptoms. The BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) reports that Medical Service Plan claims for influenza illnesses throughout Interior Health were above the 10-year maximum level in recent weeks.
Dr. Bdandama Makwati, a Castlegar family practice physician who also works as an emergency department physician said, "We are beginning to see more and more cases. There are quite a good number of patients who have come in with flu-like symptoms." He says that it is shaping up to be a more severe season for influenza compared to recent years.
Makwati explained that the strain of influenza varies from year to year, with over 70 sub-types possible. At its most basic definition influenza, often called the flu, is an infection of the upper airway (nose and throat) caused by the influenza virus. The type that is making its rounds this year is a strain of Influenza A This strain is similar to the same type of influenza that has been the source of historical flu pandemics. Last year was a mild year for influenza, but 4600 people across the globe still died from it.
So, do you have the flu, or do you have a cold? While the two illnesses share some common symptoms, there are some distinguishing factors. One differentiating factor is that flu symptoms usually come on suddenly and severely, where a cold often takes time to build. The following table with information from the BCCDC can be used to help determine which illness you have.
Stop the spread
According to the BCCDC, the virus "spreads easily from person to person through breathing, coughing and sneezing." It also spreads when tiny droplets from infected persons are dispersed and then land on objects that are then touched by a healthy person who then touches his own mouth or nose. This is why covering the mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing, properly disposing of tissues, frequent hand washing and staying at home if you are ill are so important.
On average, adults can spread the disease from the day before symptoms show up to about five days later.
Children have a higher rate of influenza infection than adults, and have a higher viral load once they are infected, making them very contagious. It is important to keep children with flu-like symptoms home from school and day care to prevent the spread of the illness to this highly vulnerable group.
A person with influenza is at risk for other infections such as bacterial or viral pneumonia, dehydration and respiratory failure. Patients less than five years old, those over the age of 65, and people with underlying medical conditions are at higher risk of developing complications.
When a person with an underlying condition such as asthma, heart disease, lung disease, or immune system problems is affected, they are also at risk of exacerbating the symptoms of their disease.
Unfortunately, the danger of complications was highlighted locally when two residents at Talarico Place long term care facility died of influenza complications.
The BCCDC says that influenza typically lasts 7 to ten days, but the cough and malaise, or fatigue, associated with it can last for several weeks more.
"Something I feel that is important for the public to know is what the flu is, what type of symptoms will present, how to prevent the flu, and knowing when to seek help," said Makwati.
People with risk factors such as chronic health conditions, especially those that affect immunity or the heart and lungs, the elderly and the very young should seek medical attention as soon as possible.
For a person who is usually healthy home treatments are often sufficient. This includes bed rest, drinking extra fluids, avoiding smoking and second hand smoke, breathing moist air and controlling any fever. Anyone who begins to exhibit signs of pneumonia such as chest pain and shortness breath should go ahead and seek medical attention.
"When you have a high fever, you are loosing a significant amount of body fluids," said Makwati. He emphasized the importance of trying to keep the fever down by taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen every six hours for at least 2 to 3 days. This will not only help with maintaining a proper body temperature, but also lower the risk of dehydration. "You can never over-emphasize the need for hydration," added Makwati.
Another treatment option is antiviral medications. To be considered for this medication, patients should see a doctor right away as the medication becomes less effective the longer you are ill.
"Patient education and public awareness is crucial," emphasized Makwati, noting that this is an illness with potentially fatal complications such as those at Talarico Pace last week. "Most people want to continue working or going to school — this becomes a public health issue because we are spreading the virus," he said. "People need to know when to seek help, how to prevent it, and stay home."