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So far, the number of people hospitalized due to contracting influenza has increased in the past year

COURTESY: OREGON HEALTH AUTORITY - Dr. Ann Thomas (right) consults with Magdalena Scott, an epidemiologist with Anns flu team at the Oregon Health Authority. Oregon's influenza season is in full force, and though final numbers aren't known, it appears to be a robust season for flu sufferers.

"We certainly haven't peaked yet (as of press time), but we're going up fast," said Dr. Ann Thomas, a public health physician with the Public Health Division of the Oregon Health Authority. "From the indicators we have, it's looking like it's certainly one of our more severe seasons."

Numbers for the week of Dec. 17 through Dec. 23 revealed there were 123 influenza-associated hospitalizations throughout Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington Counties. That number was up from 85 reported the week before. Glancing at numbers from December, Thomas said hospitalizations were up from the year before. Statistics are updated at the Oregon Health Authority website (search for Flu Bites).

Influenza, also known as the flu, is a viral infection that strikes the respiratory system. It can be fatal, but in many cases, it resolves itself.

There are ways to tell whether you're suffering from a nasty cold or unlucky enough to have the flu.

"Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish," Thomas said. "Usually there are a number of respiratory viruses that can cause a cold. Flu is different." Flu symptoms can include coughing, runny nose, fever, fatigue (which can be profound) and muscle aches.

"I think what really sets apart flu is the suddenness (and severity) of it," Thomas said. "Oftentimes, people with colds still go to work. But usually when you have a flu, it really knocks you down. It's abrupt, and you can't move."

According to Thomas, influenza hits hardest in youngsters under 5, in adults over 65, and in individuals with chronic conditions, such as pre-existing heart disease, lung disease, asthma, emphysema and diabetes.

There can be complications with influenza. "For most people, it resolves on its own," Thomas said, but complications can include pneumonia, sinus infection or ear infection.

"Rarely, the virus might actually infect the heart muscle and cause something called myocarditis," Thomas said. "Or it could have neurologic complications, like seizures or encephalitis."

Occasionally, flu can be fatal. Thomas said, "I would say that, about on average, 3 percent of patients who are hospitalized die. Most of the deaths are in the elderly."

Flu shots are helpful, and recommended for many, but they don't help in every case.

"The flu vaccine isn't always effective, but we always recommend it anyway," Thomas said. "Even if it doesn't prevent you from acquiring the infection, you will likely have a milder infection — people have a shorter duration of hospital stay if they've been vaccinated."

In people hospitalized with flu, studies show there were fewer deaths among those who were vaccinated. "There are also studies showing that kids who get vaccinated are less likely to die from influenza," she said.

Among vaccines available these days, Thomas admits the flu vaccine is not her favorite. "Among a lot of us who are pro vaccine, and understand the importance of vaccines, flu is probably not our favorite vaccine because it's not as effective," she said. "We have a lot of vaccines (such as for hepatitis and measles) that are over 90 percent effective and are very good, safe vaccines."

Thomas continued, "Flu, fortunately, is a very safe vaccine — the problem is it tends to be, maybe, 40 to 60 percent effective at reducing infection."

Flu can be spread from person to person, but you have to have direct contact with the flu droplets. With that in mind, Thomas has advice for those who think they can show up to work with full-blown influenza.

"I really wish people would stay home, even if it's not a flu, but just a virus," Thomas said. "I feel like people will get better faster, and not infect as many of their co-workers, if they would just stay home."

Thomas said anyone older than 6 months should get an annual flu vaccine. "We have a good supply (of flu vaccine) this year," Thomas said.

If you haven't had influenza, you're lucky. If you get the flu, you'll know it. She said, "It will be a memorable illness. It will probably be the sickest you've ever been."

MORE ON INFLUENZA

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone over the age of six months.

Each year's seasonal flu vaccine contains protection from the three or four influenza viruses that are expected to be the most common during that year's flu season. The vaccine is currently available as an injection only. The CDC no longer recommends nasal spray flu vaccinations because during recent flu seasons, the spray has been relatively ineffective.

Controlling the spread of infection

The influenza vaccine isn't 100 percent effective, so it's also important to take measures such as these to reduce the spread of infection:

  • Wash your hands. Thorough and frequent hand-washing is an effective way to prevent many common infections. Or use alcohol-based hand sanitizers if soap and water aren't readily available.
  • Contain your coughs and sneezes. Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough. To avoid contaminating your hands, cough or sneeze into a tissue or into the inner crook of your elbow.
  • Avoid crowds. Flu spreads easily wherever people congregate — in child care centers, schools, office buildings, auditoriums and public transportation. By avoiding crowds during peak flu season, you reduce your chances of infection. And, if you're sick, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever subsides so that you lessen your chance of infecting others.
  • Diagnosis

    Your doctor will conduct a physical exam, look for signs and symptoms of influenza, and possibly order a test that detects influenza viruses.

    The most commonly used test is called a rapid influenza diagnostics test, which looks for substances (antigens) on a swab sample from the back of the nose or throat. These tests can provide results in 30 minutes or less. However, results vary greatly and are not always accurate. Your doctor may diagnose you with influenza based on symptoms, despite having a negative test result.

    More-sensitive flu tests are available in some specialized hospitals and labs.

    Lifestyle and home remedies

    If you do come down with the flu, these measures may help ease your symptoms:

  • Drink plenty of liquids. Choose water, juice and warm soups to prevent dehydration.
  • Rest. Get more sleep to help your immune system fight infection.
  • Consider pain relievers. Use an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), to combat the achiness associated with influenza.
  • Don't give aspirin to children or teens because of the risk of Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal condition.

    — mayoclinic.org


    Scott Keith is a freelance writer with the Portland Tribune and the Pamplin Media Group. If you have a health tip, or a story idea, contact Scott at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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