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What to do about the flu

Thanks to the presence of the novel H1N1 virus, the flu season has hit hard and early. Across the nation, flu activity is reported as "widespread" by the Centers for Disease Control. Most of the influenza viruses being identified right now are 2009 H1N1 influenza A viruses, the CDC reports.

"H1N1 has been determined to be a relatively new combination of viruses that we have not seen before - including human avian and swine influenza," said Dr. Aris Assimacopoulos with Infectious Disease Specialists P.C., located on the Avera McKennan campus in Sioux Falls. "While some H1N1 cases have been serious - including some deaths - most cases appear to be mild to moderate."

Nationwide, total influenza hospitalization rates for laboratory-confirmed flu are higher than expected for this time of the year.

The H1N1 flu vaccine has been made available to higher-risk populations. So far, those eligible for the H1N1 vaccine include:

  • Pregnant women
  • People who live with or care for infants younger than 6 months
  • People ages 6 months through 24 years
  • Health care and emergency medical services workers
  • Adults 25-64 with chronic health conditions (asthma, diabetes, neuromuscular diseases, renal disease, cardiovascular disease)

As supplies increase, the vaccine will eventually be made available to the general population. Those 65 and over are not on the initial priority list because younger age groups appear to be at higher risk for H1N1 and its complications, unlike seasonal flu which impacts older adults more.

In the meantime, people are advised to get vaccinated against the seasonal flu - especially people at high risk. This includes people over age 65.

To avoid viral cold and flu illnesses, it's important to take steps to stay in good health, said Assimacopoulos. "Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage stress, drink plenty of fluids and eat a nutritious diet."

Following these simple steps will avoid the spread of the flu.

  • Get vaccinated when it's available for both seasonal and H1N1 flu.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Wash you hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread that way.
  • Avoid contact with sick people.

Influenza is thought to spread mainly person-to-person through coughing or sneezing of infected people. If you are sick, stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them. It's important to stay home until 24 hours after fever has resolved itself without fever-reducing medication. Symptoms of H1N1 are similar to symptoms of typical seasonal flu, including:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Cough
  • Body aches
  • Diarrhea and vomiting

If someone in your home becomes ill with the flu, that person should stay in a separate room away from others in the home, and have one main caregiver who is healthy. Assimacopoulos advises:

  • Plenty of bedrest
  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen (according to package directions) to reduce fever and ease headache and body aches. Aspirin should not be given to children and teens.
  • Plenty of fluids such as water, juices, broth, and drinks with salt and sugar like sports drinks or lemonade to prevent dehydration.

Everyone in the household should wash hands frequently or use alcohol-based hand cleaners. Clean and disinfect counters and surfaces in the home.

Seek medical care if symptoms are severe or the patient has difficulty breathing, has bluish or grayish skin color, or if vomiting is persistent.

Information about H1N1 is available from the Centers for Disease Control at 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636) or on the web at http://www.PandemicFlu.gov.