State officials said 13 people in North Carolina have died from the flu, with five deaths occurring last week. While no flu-related deaths have occurred in the area, local officials are urging residents to take extra precaution by staying home at the first sign of any type of flu-related symptoms to avoid spreading sickness.
According to the North Carolina Department of Public Health, flu symptoms may include fever, headache, tiredness, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, and also may include stomach symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Complications from the flu may include bacterial pneumonia, dehydration, worsening of chronic medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes. Common complications in children may include sinus problems and ear infections.
Flu spreads through respiratory fluids caused by coughing and sneezing and is usually spread from person to person, although sometimes may be spread from someone touching something with flu viruses on it, then touching their mouth or nose. Frequent hand washing is important. Adults may infect others as early as one day before symptoms develop and up to seven days after becoming sick, which means symptoms can be spread before an individual realizes they are sick.
“It’s not too late to get a flu shot,” urged Dr. Dee Everhart with Everhart Primary Health Care. “We are just now beginning to see what I would call real flu, which is later this year coming in than last year. I don’t think we’ve reached the peak yet, and people should go ahead and get a flu shot as soon as possible.”
In fact, Everhart noted that with “with anyone seen here in our office since Christmas with flu symptoms, none have had a flu shot. It’s out there and for a lot of people it is free, so they really need to get it. I keep telling my patients, ‘It’s cheaper to get a flu shot than to miss three weeks of work.’”
Flu vaccinations are available at the Surry County Health and Nutrition Center each day of the week for walk-in patients; no appointment is necessary. For more information, call 401-8590. Flu vaccinations also are available through many pharmacies in the area and doctors’ offices.
Everhart said many of their patients could not afford the typical medication used to treat flu, Tamiflu. “Antibiotics don’t really help the flu, but if there is lung involvement due to flu complications, we will prescribe antibiotics just to be safe. We are treating our patients supportively, but unfortunately we feel the flu will get worse before it gets better.”
Dr. Jan Kriska with Blue Ridge Medical Group said flu season this year didn’t start locally until “late November, with more coming in around Christmas and after…,” and agreed with Everhart that this area has not yet arrived at the peak of flu season. “Sometimes it is hard to tell what is true flu and what are viral symptoms, and since many who come into our office do not purchase flu tests, since their insurance does not pay for it, we have to make a clinical decision and treat the symptoms as they are. We are also seeing a lot of people with viral and respiratory infections as well as lots of gastrointestinal symptoms that may not be caused by the flu.”
Kriska said the best way to prevent the spread of flu is to use “common sense” and stay out of school and work at the first sign of flu symptoms. He also recommended those who have not received a flu shot, to get one as soon as possible. “A lot of times we even see a second bout of flu in March because people are immune deficient after a long winter.”
Other ways to stay well, Kriska noted, are to get plenty of sleep, wear proper clothing in cold weather, and drink “plenty of warm fluids.”
“The immune system is why our bodies produce fever, to immobilize the immune system, so by heating things up it can help — chicken broth, or chicken soup, there really is science behind this…it’s an old-fashioned thing, but it works.”
Statewide flu data
The Department of Health and Human Services released figures this week that show five people died from flu in the week from Dec. 22 to Dec. 28. Of the 13 flu deaths in the state, all but one person was younger than age 65. Seven deaths were reported between the ages of 25 and 49 and five deaths were between the ages of 50 and 64. Typically, children under age two, pregnant women, and people with asthma, diabetes and heart disease are the most at risk of complications.
Northern Surry Hospital has put in place temporary visitor restrictions because of the flu; visitors under 18 are no longer allowed in patient rooms, hospital lobbies, waiting areas, and classrooms.
“We continue to ask visitors not to come to the hospital if they have any flu symptoms,” said Kitty Horton, RN, director of Infection Prevention at Northern. “Children are often contagious before they show signs of an illness. Allowing this age group to visit in hospital patient areas at this time presents potentially critical risks to patients.”
According to the North Carolina Weekly Influenza Surveillance Summary for week 52, ending Dec. 28, the flu increased in North Carolina significantly and was now considered to be widespread throughout the state, as well as widespread throughout Virginia. Last year’s flu season peaked around the second week of Jan., and this year’s data shows a similar trend. Respiratory viruses, with similar symptoms to the flu, are also widespread.
Information released by the Department of Health and Human Services note that the timing of the flu is “very unpredictable” and can very from season to season, but most commonly peaks in January or February, and could continue to occur as late as May.
This year, Everhart said she was seeing flu symptoms from patients at Everhart Primary Health Care later than normal, with the first round not arriving until late September and early November. “I don’t think we have seen the peak yet,” Everhart noted. “We saw a huge increase in patients with flu-like symptoms this week and after Christmas.”
The Center for Disease Control recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone six months and older as the most important step in protecting against this serious disease. The flu vaccine protects against the three main flu strains that caused the most illness this season.
A representative with Surry County’s Health and Nutrition Center was not available to comment on local flu trends.
Reach Jessica Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 719-1933.