Since mid-December, influenza has descended with a vengeance at some South Jersey hospitals. Though the area hasn’t yet experienced the high levels affecting other parts of the state, flu cases are increasing in both number and severity.
About half the country is in the midst of high flu activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The most common circulating strain, H3N2, is associated with more severe illness and death, especially among older people and young children. Typical flu symptoms include: fever (though not always), cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue, and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting.
Dr. David Condoluci, chief patient safety and quality officer for Kennedy Health, said his hospitals are seeing increases in intensive care admissions due to flu complications, including pneumonia. People with conditions such as diabetes, cancer, asthma and lung disease are especially vulnerable.
“The elderly are particularly hit hard. They are pretty sick this year,” Condoluci said.
Most people can tough out the flu at home with chicken soup, Tylenol and plenty of rest and fluids. But some patients need medical attention.
The flu “triggers a lot of bad stuff in older, more debilitated patients,” added Dr. Henry Fraimow, hospital epidemiologist for Cooper University Health Care. Besides sparking pneumonia, the respiratory illness can dehydrate fragile patients, worsen kidney function, and even cause heart attacks or heart failure.
Local schools are also reporting a rise in student absences, Fraimow said. And Cooper’s emergency department, urgent care centers and hospital admissions are seeing an upswing in likely flu cases.
“Things are revving up,” Fraimow explained.
To stay healthy in the coming months, doctors recommend getting the annual flu vaccine, even though this year’s version doesn’t match the H3N2 strain. The vaccine does protect against other strains that may be circulating, said Kennedy’s Condoluci, and may offer some protection against H3N2.
“There are holes in the protection,” Condoluci allowed, “but, nonetheless, if you haven’t gotten it, you should get it.”
How to stay well during flu season
• Get vaccinated.
• Frequently wash your hands for 20 to 30 seconds with soap and warm water.
• Sneeze into the crook of your elbow, if you don’t have a tissue.
• Try not to touch your face. Viruses can enter through your eyes, nose and mouth.
• Avoid people who are coughing or sneezing.
• If you are sick, avoid other people. Stay home from work or school. You are contagious with the flu one day before symptoms appear, and up to seven days after coming down with the flu.