Flu season is here: H1N1 nothing to sneeze at, but not out of the ordinary

By Kristy Bleizeffer Dec 19, 2013

Wyoming Medical Center has seen a few cases of the dreaded H1N1 influenza virus this month, but it’s nothing to get excited about, said Dr. Mark Dowell, medical director of infection control at WMC.

H1N1 (also called swine flu) got a lot of media attention in 2009 because it hadn’t been seen in United States for many years and, as a result, the population was more susceptible. Young adults, who typically fend off most flus, fell ill. It caused more than 100 deaths in non-immunized pregnant women. Ever since, H1N1 has been one of three strains included in the influenza vaccine.

“H1N1 is just one of the many influenza viruses that are circulating right now internationally. It is no different really than most of the other strains of flu that go around every year,” said Dowell, who is also the Natrona County Health Officer. “It just is a little more aggressive in some people and it has hung around longer year to year than other strains. And it really doesn’t do too well in pregnant women.

“But it’s not a superstrain of virus. It’s another strain of virus.”

Flu cases at Wyoming Medical Center are still fairly sporadic, but they signal the start of Natrona County’s flu season. Cases will likely peak in 4 to 6 weeks, before tapering off again, Dowell said. If the season follows the typical pattern, cases will straggle in through March or April.

Here’s what you need to know to get ready for the worst season of the year – flu season:

Is it a cold or the flu?

Influenza, including H1N1, will make you sicker than you normally get. It sometimes presents with a cough but more usually with a 100-degree-or-so fever, headache  and tremendous muscle and joint pain. A stuffed-up nose is typically not a sign of the flu.

“You will often say, ‘This is as sick as I’ve ever been in my life,’” Dowell said. “I have had influenza as a teenager, and believe me, you will not forget it.”

Is it serious?

It can be. About 36,000 people a year die in this country from influenza. It is typically most dangerous to the very young, the very old or people with weakened immune systems – people with heart or kidney disease or cancers, for example. Complications can include flu pneumonia or developing bacterial pneumonia on top of your flu.

But, in most healthy people, the flu can be fought off at home.

“We don’t want to put patients with influenza in the hospital if we can help it because it tends to spread by droplet. The majority of people never get hospitalized for influenza. The treatment works if you start it early when you recognize the disease, otherwise it does nothing,” Dowell said. “The complications that occur usually mainly occur in those that are least healthy.”

How can I prevent it?

Get the vaccination, plain and simple. The CDC recommends that everyone six months and older get a flu shot, particularly people who are very young or very old or who may suffer from other chronic illnesses. Pregnant women should also get it since they have two lives at stake.

H1N1 can still seem like a big, bad monster because it’s been around for just a few years. “And since, a lot of times, only 30 to 50 percent of the population gets immunized , there is a whole population that is still susceptible. Because of that, it spreads,” Dowell said.

In the elderly, the flu shot may protect 50 percent of the time. But 50 percent is 50 percent, Dowell said. If you’re not willing to get the shot, be diligent about washing your hands and using hand gel. Use common sense. Flu is spread through fluids, so avoid fluids secreted by infected people.

But I’ve heard the shot will give me the flu?

The flu shot uses a dead virus. It cannot infect you. Symptoms you might experience afterward are caused by your immune response and only about 7 percent of people even get a fever from the shot, Dowell said.  The nasal vaccine does contain a live virus, so only choose this option if you have a fairly good immune system.

“Here at Wyoming Medical Center, we have more than 99 percent of our employees immunized against flu. We do not want our employees bringing influenza into our sick patients,” Dowell said. “We have done this for several years. We are very proud of it, and our employees just go for it.”

Ok, I’m convinced. But do I still have time to get the shot and be protected?

Yes. Get it now.

The shot lasts four to six months but is strongest after two to four weeks. So, you will likely be protected when the Natrona County season peaks in the next month or so.

As a general rule, people in Wyoming should not get their flu shots any earlier than October or November, despite the signs in supermarket parking lots. Our flu seasons typically come later than other parts of the country. Talk to your health provider.

Mark Dowell M.D.

Dr. Dowell is board certified in infectious disease and is the medical director of Infectious Disease at Wyoming Medical Center. He is also the Natrona County health officer. He moved to Casper in 1992 and was the first infectious disease specialist in the state of Wyoming. He raised two kids here. He founded and practices at Rocky Mountain Infectious Diseases.

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