Monday Medical: Influenza and winter are still here

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Whether or not the groundhog sees its shadow, Routt County residents almost always can count on winter lasting much longer than mid-March.

This year is no different.

"Winter is not over yet, and neither is influenza season," Yampa Valley Medical Center Infection Prevention Coordinator Steve Hilley said.

Flu, as influenza is commonly called, should not be confused with the short-lived "bug" that attacks the gastrointestinal tract and causes vomiting and diarrhea for a day or two. It is a serious viral infection, creating fever, body aches, fatigue, headache, chest congestion, sore throat and cough. Many people stay ill for a week to 10 days.

If you received a flu immunization last fall, pat yourself on the back, but don't get overly complacent. You still could catch the flu.

"There are several types of influenza," Hilley explained. "This year's vaccine did a good job of covering the most severe type of flu, but missed the strain that is now spreading around the world."

If you didn't get a flu shot, it is not too late. Janice Poirot, public health nurse with the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, said the VNA still is providing and recommending immunization.

"We are continuing to immunize right through April and into May," Poirot said. "Even when the vaccine is not a perfect match, it can reduce the severity of symptoms if people do catch the flu."

"One reason flu can spread quickly is that people are contagious not only throughout the fever stage, but for up to three days before symptoms appear," Hilley said. "There's a good chance that someone you know is carrying that virus. It can spread through coughing or sneezing and live on surfaces for hours."

Local residents may be bringing home more than a suntan as they return from exotic locales. "This is the time of year when we see more international travel," Poirot said. "It's easy to pick up a virus on vacation."

To prevent the virus from invading your body, Hilley advises frequent hand washing and keeping your fingers away from your face - especially your eyes, nose and mouth.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the "Take 3" program:

- Take time to get a vaccine.

- Take everyday actions to stop germs such as frequent hand washing and covering coughs and sneezes. Use your elbow, shoulder or sleeve to catch a cough or sneeze, not your hands.

- Take antiviral drugs if your doctor says you need them.

Hilley suggests seeing a physician immediately if you suspect you have flu, especially if you experience a sudden onset of fever. If a test confirms a flu diagnosis, an anti-viral drug such as Tamiflu or Relenza can be prescribed.

When administered within a day or two of the first sign of symptoms, anti-viral drugs can reduce the severity and duration of the disease. These medications also can prevent the spread of flu among vulnerable populations such as the elderly.

Nowhere was this better illustrated than at the Doak Walker Care Center. When three residents were diagnosed with flu earlier this winter, Administrator Lee Dickey and Nursing Director Sue Heiner activated the center's guidelines to treat the ill and protect all the residents.

"The Doak staff knew what to do," Medical Director Brian Harrington, M.D., said. "Even though this happened on a weekend, all the key leaders were there, and so were the hospital pharmacists. The entire staff should be applauded for their efforts."

Every resident received an individually calculated dose of anti-viral medication. Group activities were suspended, residents were served meals in their rooms and family and friends were asked to limit their visits.

Flu often can be fatal among the elderly, especially those who have other health conditions. Harrington praised the care center staff for keeping a close watch on all residents, discovering the flu in its earliest stages, administering appropriate treatment and preventing potential fatalities.

Last week, Hilley placed signs at the entrances to Yampa Valley Medical Center listing flu symptoms and encouraging good hand hygiene. Waterless hand cleanser is available at hospital entrances.

"Please stay home from work or school if you have flu symptoms," Hilley said. "See your doctor as soon as possible or come to the hospital emergency department for a test and treatment."

Christine McKelvie is public relations director at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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