By LISA M. HOFFMANN
KINGSFORD - Influenza and the common cold have hit the area early, and health officials say it's not too late to take precautions to avoid getting a cold or the flu.
Lisa M. Hoffmann/The Daily News Photo
Joyce Ziegler, R.N. and community health services director for the Dickinson-Iron District Health Department, washes her hands using soap and water. Proper hand washing is one way to avoid getting the flu.
According to this week's Center's for Disease Control (CDC) report, while activity levels vary across the country, national influenza activity is elevated and continues to increase across most key indicators. High influenza-like-illness activity is still concentrated in the South Central and Southeastern regions of the nation.
Influenza, also known as the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by flu viruses.
Joyce Ziegler, R.N. and community health services director for the Dickinson-Iron District Health Department, said Michigan, including Dickinson and Iron counties, is experiencing more cases than usual for this time of year.
"We are seeing confirmed influenza cases approximately one and a half months earlier than last year," Ziegler said. "The primary strain this season is H3N2, an influenza A virus that has been associated in the past with more severe flu seasons."
Ziegler added friends and family members may already have runny noses and coughs, but at this point these symptoms are more likely due to one of the "cold" viruses that circulate during the fall and winter months.
"And with over 200 different types of cold viruses, it is very possible to get sick more than once per season. Although people sometimes find it hard to tell if they have a routine cold or if they have true influenza, there are usually some differences," Ziegler said. "Influenza typically causes more severe symptoms with fever, chills, cough, headache and an overall 'I think I've been hit by a bus' feeling that usually lasts for five to seven days, and sometimes longer."
Health officials note the most common influenza strains are covered by this year's influenza vaccination.
Dr. Terry Frankovich, Medical Director at Dickinson-Iron District Health Department, said this year's flu vaccine should be very effective, providing protection against 90 percent of the flu strains that are circulating.
Although is it not known when influenza case numbers will peak, health officials note that in the past years, cases tended to peak in February.
"It is unknown whether the early appearance of flu will mean an early exit or simply a longer flu season overall," Frankovich said.
The health department still has flu vaccine available for those who would like to get the flu shot yet this year.
Caused by viruses
The flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses but they are caused by different viruses.
Because these two types of illnesses have similar flu-like symptoms, it can be difficult to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. Frankovich said that in general, the flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness, and dry cough are more common and intense.
Colds are usually milder than the flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations.
Influenza symptoms can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death.
Health officials note the flu is different from a cold and usually comes on suddenly.
People who have the flu often feel some or all of these symptoms: fever or feeling feverish/chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue (tiredness).
Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.
Ziegler said it's important to note that not everyone with flu will have a fever.
"Most people who get influenza will recover in a few days to less than two weeks, but some people will develop complications (such as pneumonia) as a result of the flu, some of which can be life-threatening and result in death," she said.
Pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus and ear infections are three examples of complications from flu.
Flu is contagious
Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Children may pass the virus for longer than seven days.
Ziegler said symptoms start one to four days after the virus enters the body.
"That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick," she said. "Some persons can be infected with the flu virus but have no symptoms. During this time, those persons may still spread the virus to others."
To avoid getting the flu, the CDC suggests taking the time to get a flu vaccine.
A yearly flu vaccine is the first and most important step in protecting against flu viruses, according to the CDC.
"While there are many different flu viruses, a flu vaccine protects against the three viruses that are most common this season," Ziegler said.
Everyone six months of age and older should get a flu vaccine.
Ziegler said vaccination also is important for health care workers, and other people who live with or care for high risk people to keep from spreading flu to high risk people.
Children younger than six months are at high risk of serious flu illness, but are too young to be vaccinated. People who care for them should be vaccinated instead.
"Take everyday preventive actions to stop the spread of germs," Frankovich said. "Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it."
Frankovich added that persons should wash their hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way.
Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
If you are sick with flu-like illness, the CDC recommends staying home for at least 24 hours after the fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities. (Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.)
While sick, limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them.
The influenza virus is spread person to person via droplets when infected people cough or sneeze. The virus can travel from person to person within a few feet of someone coughing or sneezing. It can also be spread from touching contaminated surfaces such as doorknobs and then rubbing your eyes or touching the moist areas of your nose or mouth.
"So, avoiding close contact with people who have the flu, avoiding large crowds during the flu season and practicing good hand washing - particularly before eating or touching your eyes, nose or mouth - can help to reduce your chances of becoming ill," Ziegler aid.
Most people who get the flu may be treated at home with rest, fluids and fever- reducing medication.
Early in a person's illness (usually within 48 hours of becoming ill), physicians may decide to treat with an anti-viral medication, especially if the individual is at high risk of complications. Antibiotics are not effective unless the patient develops a bacterial infection such as strep throat, pneumonia, or a sinus infection, on top of the flu.
Anyone else who is concerned about their symptoms, particularly if they are having very high fevers, are unable to take in adequate fluids or are very lethargic, should also contact their provider.
Lisa M. Hoffmann's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.