Flu: Are You In the Clear this Year?
Even in a mild flu year experts urge you to take the virus seriously.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s flu season typically reaches its full force in late January or early February, plateaus in March or April and eventually ends in the spring, sometimes as late as May. This year’s most active new infection period is upon us, but even at its peak the current outbreak has been milder this year as compared to last year.
So, are you in the clear this year? Three clinicians within Sutter’s network of care weigh in.
Less Severe, Equally Widespread
Jeffrey Silvers, M.D., Sutter Health’s medical director of infection control, brings a background in infectious disease to his answer: “While this years flu season has been less severe so far, the outbreak has been equally widespread; meaning all counties in California have reported cases of flu.” As of Jan. 19, there have been 19 laboratory-confirmed influenza outbreaks reported to California Department of Public Health for the 2018–2019 season. “The height of flu season is here, and although we are hoping that not as many people will get sick with influenza this year as compared to last year, you should not underestimate the risk from this infection. Unfortunately, a lot of people will get sick and hundreds will die.”
The predominant flu strain in California and nationally is H1N1, a kind of Influenza A that was commonly called “swine flu” in the past. This strain is most dangerous for children and pregnant women. “We are watching surveillance reports closely to see if there is a spike in Influenza B, as that could change our projections with little warning,” said Dr. Silvers. Read more about how an epidemiologist prepares for flu season in this San Francisco Chronicle story, which quotes Dr. Silvers.
The Risk Persists
“No matter your age, gender, income or zip code, you are at risk of getting the flu” said Kellen Glinder, M.D., pediatrician with Palo Alto Medical Foundation, part of the Sutter Health network. Everyday Dr. Glinder sees sick kids and worried parents at the pediatric clinic where he works.
“Getting an annual flu shot is the first and most important step in preventing the spread of the flu. The vaccine is safe and, even if the vaccine doesn’t completely protect you from a particular influenza strain and you do get sick, you may still benefit by having less severe symptoms because you’ve had the vaccine.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agrees, stating that antibodies made in response to vaccination with one flu virus can sometimes provide protection against different but related flu viruses. In addition, vaccinated individuals are less likely to spread the virus to others, and this helps protect the most vulnerable people in our community who either were not vaccinated or who do not have a good immune response to the vaccine.
When asked why he is so passionate about vaccination Dr. Glinder replies: “This single action can reduce illness, antibiotic use, doctor visits and lost time from school or work, as well as prevent hospitalizations and deaths – it should be a no-brainer every year.” This year is no exception, and yes, there’s still time to benefit from a flu shot.
When in Doubt, Get Checked Out
Carolin Delker, N.P., and clinical director of Sutter Health’s Walk-In Care division says that people generally come to her for two reasons: peace of mind or medicine. “The great thing is that because we’re open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day – in convenient shopping centers – we can offer both.”
“More than half of our 14 Walk-In Care locations offer point-of-care testing for the flu, which means we can tell you if you do indeed have the flu and which Type (A or B). We are also able to prescribe Tamiflu (also called oseltamivir) if indicated,” said Delker.
Tamiflu is an antiviral medication that can shorten the number of days that the flu is active in the body, but it cannot immediately cure the flu. It is most effective within the first 24 hours of symptoms, but it can be given up to 48 hours after symptoms begin. If you are at increased risk of complications from influenza, Tamiflu can be started even if more than 48 hours have elapsed since the illness began.
Delker leaves all her patients with the same reminder: “winter illnesses can be viral, like flu, or bacterial, like strep throat. A clinician is your best resource to determine which you type of illness you have and start you on the right treatment.”