Stay healthy, avoid the flu

Jan. 10, 2014 @ 11:27 AM

It is not too late to get a flu shot, especially since North Carolina has one of the worst flu outbreaks this year.

So far, 13 deaths from influenza have been reported statewide this season. Only one was an older adult. The other 12 were adults under the age of 65 but had other health problems, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Seven were between the ages of 25 and 49 years.

There have been 67 laboratory confirmed flu cases in North Carolina this season. Four were from Union County.

"The activity level is extremely high," Union County Health Department Director Philip Tarte said.

Spread of the flu is tracked by the N.C. Influenza Sentinel Surveillance Program. Doctors, public health departments, hospitals and other health care providers report the number of patients treated for influenza-like symptoms.  

The flu season peaks in February, finally ending in March. The most flu-related deaths reported this year came the week after Christmas.

"Flu outbreak is usually worse in areas with higher population density. It's worse if hits around Christmas and New Years because that's a time when people are getting together a lot," Tarte said. "That's an opportunity for the virus to spread."

Because the flu is viral instead of bacterial, the human body does not have much natural immunity to it. People who have the flu should stay home, but that is not always possible. A flu shot makes it harder for the virus to make you sick, but it is not foolproof.

"It doesn't mean you definitely won't get the flu, but it does give you a better defense against the flu when you're exposed to it than if you don't get the vaccine," he said.

Influenza is more dangerous than the modern world often realizes. Years ago, the flu could easily kill those it infected. Current treatment makes flu only a temporary inconvenience for most, but it still has the potential to threaten life.

"Unfortunately, when you get into a situation where you have diabetes or some other underlying medical condition, that compromises your immune system which makes it harder for your body to fight off the flu," Tarte said.

Children, the elderly and people with an existing medical problem need to be extra careful about staying healthy.

Even severe cases of the flu are dangerous. When accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea, dehydration is a serious risk.

"That's the point where people need to get medical treatment. If they can't keep fluids down, it can cause a blood sugar problem and an electrolyte imbalance and that's serious," Tarte said.

Health care providers should have doses of flu vaccine available, Tarte said. While they are less effective later in the season, it is still a good idea to protect yourself.

There are other things you can do to keep yourself healthy:

• Wash your hands often and vigorously

• Stay at home if you have the flu

• If you are sick, let friends and family know and encourage them to check on your condition

• Stay hydrated, especially if you have diarrhea or are vomiting

• Get treatment early to shorten the duration