How to protect yourself when the flu flourishes

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Weather woes leading to greater flu concerns. The cold outside means warm dry conditions inside – and that’s perfect conditions for the flu to flourish. An earlier than expected flu peak hits Illinois, but it’s not too late to protect yourself.


As most of us focus on protecting ourselves from the bitter cold, doctors say there’s something else we should be thinking about …


Dr. Sanjeev Malik, Northwestern Medicine: “It’s really important for us to be vaccinated. It’s the best way to prevent the spread of transmission.”


The influenza virus is widespread – that’s common in January, but Northwestern emergency medicine doctor Sanjeev Malik says the numbers are climbing.


Dr. Sanjeev Malik: “We’ve seen 27 cases in the last week and it’s really increased over the last three weeks.”


At Rush, internist Dr. Jennifer Earvolino says the numbers look about the same.


Dr. Jennifer Earvolino, Rush University Medical Center: “I’m definitely seeing more patients who are in the more middle aged — 20s, 30s, 40s — age group who are coming in feeling pretty miserable, and those are the ones who never did get the vaccine.”


There’s still time – this season’s flu vaccine is readily available and it offers protection against the H1N1 virus – the most common strain doctors are seeing this year.


Dr. Sanjeev Malik: “Approximately 70% of our cases are H1N1.”


Dr. Earvolino: “The peak of flu season is January and February. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to fully kick in but even someone now if they got it now they certainly will be protected.”


Dr. Earvolino: “The patients I have seen who are super sick with the flu, who are feeling miserable, did not receive the vaccine, but I have seen some who did receive the vaccine who are sick but not nearly as debilitated as those who did not receive the vaccine.”


It’s not your common cold. The flu bug mounts an aggressive attack that comes on quickly.


Dr. Earvolino: “It’s a very dramatic start. People can almost name the hour when they got hit with it.”


Dr. Earvolino: “High fever to 102, bad headaches, bad muscle aches, malaise, they just feel wiped, super tired. Far worse than your common cold and it strikes suddenly … you almost feel like a bus has hit you.”


The elderly and very young are most at risk — and anyone with a chronic illness that impacts their immune system. Patients with diabetes, kidney problems or pulmonary disease need to be extra cautious if they feel symptoms coming on.


Dr. Earvolino: “Those people I would want to have them call on day one because those are the individuals I would like to give medication to.”


Medications like Tamiflu or Relenza can help shorten the duration of the illness. In high-risk patients, the drugs may help lessen the risk of complications like pneumonia. But you have to act quickly.


Dr. Earvolino: “If they are started after 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, they will not give any added benefit.”


And if there is a silver lining to the wicked weather we’ve endured …


Dr. Earvolino: “If people aren’t getting out on public transportation as much and staying home a bit more they may actually be protected from others.”


Hand washing cuts down on spread of the flu. But experts say stay home if you are sick – it will cut down on the number of people you infect and reduce the number of illnesses.

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