A winter of flu

This winter looks set to be one to remember although maybe not for reasons we’d like to remember it. As well as setting weather records, notably for cold temperatures and vast quantities of rain, 2017 has also seen record numbers of New Zealanders with the flu.

The flu arrived early this year and with greater numbers of people being affected. Earlier this month, Environmental Science and Research released figures showing that this winter New Zealanders are catching the flu at three times the rate of last year. Roughly twice the usual number of people have been admitted to hospitals around NZ and diagnosed with the flu each week since mid-June.

News headlines across NZ in recent weeks have noted hospital Emergency Departments overflowing as the flu season hits and hospitals are at capacity in terms of full beds. Surgery lists have been reshuffled and elective surgeries postponed as hospital staff seek to attend to record numbers of patients.

And this is despite more than 1.3 million kiwis having had the flu vaccine this year – a strategy that National Influenza Immunisation Awareness campaign spokesman and virologist Lance Jennings says is still the single best protector against getting sick. Studies suggest the vaccine decreases the risk of infection by between 40 and 50%.  Halving the risk seem pretty good odds to me especially since the flu can be a serious illness.

People often say they have the flu when in reality they have a bad cold. Flu symptoms include a cough, headache, high temperature (fever) and/or chills, body aches and pains, fatigue and generally feeling miserable. Although some of the symptoms are the same as for a cold, the flu is usually much more severe and typically flu symptoms come on suddenly. People asking me for help in the pharmacy have described it as feeling like they ‘hit the wall’ and they can almost name the exact time they first felt symptoms.

As a general guide, the flu can keep you in bed for at least a week preventing you from working, playing sport, going shopping or socialising – anything that requires leaving your home. There can also be serious complications from the flu and anyone who gets the flu could end up in hospital. Babies, young children and the elderly are especially at risk. And the flu can make existing medical conditions such as asthma or diabetes a lot worse.

Treatment for the flu is mostly aimed at relieving the symptoms. Medicines such as paracetamol and ibuprofen will help to reduce a fever and ease the aches and pains.  Antiviral medicines, which make the symptoms less severe and help you recover faster, may be appropriate for some people who have the flu. In some situations people who have been in contact with someone with the flu may also take an antiviral medicine to prevent them from developing the flu. These medicines need to be taken early in the course of the illness – your pharmacist or doctor can advise whether antiviral medicines are appropriate in specific situations.

Antiviral medicines however do not replace the flu vaccine as the best strategy for the control of influenza. Immunising against flu protect yourself and lessens the chance of taking the virus home to your family and spreading it in the community.

The flu vaccine is funded for certain groups of people who are considered to be at greater risk of complications from the flu. This includes pregnant women, anyone aged 65 years or over and many people with an ongoing medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart or lung conditions or cancer. And to dispel that common myth – there’s no live virus in the flu vaccine so you cannot catch the flu from it. Some people get mild symptoms after having had it – this can be part of how your body processes the vaccine to boost your immunity but this is not the flu.

If you haven’t had a flu vaccine this winter it’s not too late to have one. You develop immunity to the flu within 2 weeks of having it and as the flu season is said to last until at least the end of September, there’s still time to protect yourself and those close to you.

Stop the Spread of the flu
Stay home
– if you start to feel unwell one of the most important things you can do to help stop the spread to others is to go home and stay home until you are better.  Many people who start to feel unwell at work think they should see out that day and then stay home the next day if they’re still unwell – in reality they will have already spread the virus to those around them.

Wash your hands – is the next most important strategy to prevent the spread of the virus. The virus is passed among people by direct contact so washing your hands after you’ve touched anything that could be contaminated is important. This could be door handles, the photocopier, water filter, coffee machine etc. Wash with soap and the hottest water you can bear for 20 seconds then rinse your hands and dry them with a clean towel. After using a communal bathroom, use a paper towel or toilet paper to turn off the taps and open the door so you don’t re-contaminate your clean hands. If you can’t wash your hands use an alcohol based hand sanitiser – I use this in the pharmacy after handling money or credit cards.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth – it’s estimated that most of us touch our eyes, nose and mouth more than a dozen times an hour!

Catch your cough or sneeze – i.e. cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze then put the tissue in a lined bin. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze in to your elbow. Teach children to do this as young as possible.

Flu complications – when to see a doctor. A good rule of thumb recommended by one GP is that if you are getting worse with time rather than better it’s best to see your doctor.

Symptoms that might suggest you are developing complications and definitely mean you need to be checked out include:

  • A high fever that persists despite taking paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • Chills or severe shaking
  • Feeling short of breath or pain in your chest
  • Purple or blue coloration of your fingers, toes or lips
  • Seizures or convulsion
  • Severe headache, neck stiffness or vomiting
  • Signs of dehydration such as dry mouth, decreased urination or dizziness
  • Confusion or reduced responsiveness

If you’re unsure about someone’s health status phone your own doctor or Healthline on 0800 611 116

This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

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