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The 2017-2018 flu season rages on, showing no signs yet of slowing down. Hospitals around the country, including our own, have been inundated with record numbers of outpatient flu cases. Nationwide, there have been thousands of hospitalizations and, tragically, at least 37 child deaths.
Adding insult to injury, a study released last week brought bad news about how flu is spread. Observing 142 flu-infected patients as they breathed, coughed and sneezed, scientists found that simply breathing contaminated the air around them with the infectious flu virus.
Dr. Timothy Hendrix, medical director of Florida Hospital Centra Care urgent care centers, says the study isn't all that surprising. "Influenza is airborne, which means coughing, sneezing, breathing," he says. Rather than striking new fears in an already jumpy public, what the study should do, he says, is remind everyone that the best defense against the flu is the flu vaccine.
We asked Dr. Hendrix for more advice for navigating this grim flu season. Read on for his expert answers to frequently asked questions about symptoms, treatment and whether or not it's ever "too late" to get your flu shot.
Question #1: Is this flu season really more dangerous or deadly?
With all the terrifying and tragic news stories, you may feel like this season's virus is particularly deadly. Not so, says Dr. Hendrix. While it is severe - one of the most widespread flu seasons in years - that doesn't necessarily mean a higher risk of complications or death.
"The CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) predicted this would be a severe season, and they were right," says Dr. Hendrix. "Severity is the number of people falling ill, but there hasn't been a higher rate of hospitalizations or mortality."
Highly publicized cases of deaths, particularly among young and healthy people, can amplify that perception. In reality, according to Dr. Hendrix, the rates of hospitalizations and deaths are actually on par with past flu seasons.
Question #2: Has flu season peaked?
If you asked Dr. Hendrix this question two weeks ago, he would have had a very different answer. But numbers from even the last few days still show steadily climbing rates, with a spike last week in every Florida county.
"Over the weekend, it looked like things were declining," he says. "We were still seeing 200 patients a day [at Centra Care Urgent Care], but Monday came around and we were at 279 patients."
That number, 279, sets a new Centra Care record for the number of flu patients treated in a single day. (The old record, 271, was set just last week.)
As for when we can expect those numbers to fall, that's anyone's guess. But even after flu season has peaked, Dr. Hendrix warns there's still a ways to go: "We're right in the thick of flu season. There's at least another 10-12 weeks of flu activity left. It's not going away anytime soon."
Question #3: What's the best way for me to protect myself?
Two words: get vaccinated.
Even this late in the flu season, the CDC still recommends flu shots for those who haven't gotten one. Florida Hospital and Centra Care urgent care centers still have flu shots, and will continue to administer them as long as they are available.
"It is not too late to get your shot," Dr. Hendrix says. "It takes two weeks to reach peak immunity [in the body], which will protect you for the latter half of the flu season."
The benefits of a flu vaccine are twofold: it helps prevent you from catching the flu, and makes the illness shorter and less severe if you do.
Question #4: Can't I just stay home if I have the flu virus?
Without a doubt, if you have the flu virus you should stay home from work or school to prevent spreading it to others. But because of incubation periods, you may be contagious before even realizing you're sick. That means "just staying home" may not be enough.
"We should remind everybody that before you get symptoms of the flu, in that 24 hours before you get sick, you are spreading the flu to people around you," says Dr. Hendrix.
Question #5: If I suspect I have flu, should I go to the doctor or ride it out?
Even if you're young and healthy with no pre-existing medical conditions, Dr. Hendrix still recommends going to the doctor for Tamiflu - preferably within 48 hours of onset of symptoms, when the medicine will be most effective.
"Tamiflu will shorten the course [of the flu] and get you feeling better faster," he explains. "It's the only antiviral that's effective against the flu virus, and will help limit the spread of flu in the community."
There's essentially no upside to riding it out. Not only will you be a greater risk to the people around you, you'll be miserable for up to a week and risk dangerous complications.
Question #6: How do I tell if my flu virus has become a medical emergency?
"It's not unusual to hear about unexpected deaths in healthy individuals with no pre-existing medical problems," says Dr. Hendrix. "That's why it's important to recognize when it's getting bad."
The tell-tale signs of flu are a fever, body aches, chills and a cough - that's all typical, Dr. Hendrix says. If you develop a severe headache, vomiting, extreme lethargy, difficulty breathing (including shortness of breath or tightness in the chest), or you're unable to eat or take any liquids, then you should get to the doctor, an urgent care clinic or emergency room.
"These symptoms could be an indication that you're becoming septic, or that pneumonia may be developing," Dr. Hendrix says. Both of these conditions are extremely serious, and potentially deadly if left untreated. It's especially important to get medical attention if you have an underlying condition.
Question #7: How do I know if it's the flu or something else?
You may have read recent news stories about adenovirus, which can cause symptoms similar to influenza. While the name may be unfamiliar, you probably know it by another moniker: the common cold.
"There are other viruses out there, that's why it's called cold and flu season," says Dr. Hendrix. Adenovirus is one of up to 200 different types of cold virus, and it can also cause conjunctivitis of the eye. It's highly contagious, spread the same way as flu, but complications are rare.
"Adenovirus is less severe than the flu, you're not going to have the high fever," Dr. Hendrix says. "If you're coughing and sneezing, but don't have a fever, it's probably O.K. stay home and drink your chicken soup."
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