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Officials warn of widespread flu virus

Even though cold and flu season officially started at the end of September, more and more people locally are falling prey to the influenza virus now than when the season first began.
According to the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), overall influenza-like illness is currently above Alabama’s threshold representing significant activity.
Of the total specimens received by the Bureau of Clinical Laboratories (BCL) for the week ending Dec. 29, 2012, 54.7 percent of the specimens were positive for some type of influenza.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) said that while flu outbreaks can occur at many different times during the “season,” peak times for flu outbreaks are usually in the months of January and February so local physicians are warning residents to be even more cautious now.
Russellville resident Bonnie Marshall, MSN, FNP, CRNP, a family nurse practitioner and certified registered nurse practitioner who works at Shoals Hospital in Occupational Medicine, said the area has been hit hard by the flu virus.
“The flu is rampant this year and the onset has been much earlier than in years past,” Marshall said.
“Where it usually peaks in this area typically in January and February, we have seen a rapid onset already this year.
“Because of the increased number of cases we’ve already experienced, the CDC is predicting that we will have two peaks this year – now and then again in the January/February time frame, which means that we may have an increased exposure to the flu.”
The CDC said the best way to prevent being infected with any type of influenza virus is to get vaccinated, which they strongly recommend for anyone who is six months old or older.
While this is strongly recommended for everyone in that age group, the CDC maintains that people who are 65 years old or older; pregnant women; people with certain medical conditions like asthma, diabetes, decreased immune system and chronic lung disease; and people who live with and care for others who might suffer from those conditions receive a flu vaccine as soon as possible.
Marshall said many people believe that if they received a flu vaccine in years past that they do not have to get a new vaccine every year, but this isn’t necessarily the case.
“The flu viruses are constantly changing so a new type of virus can appear each year, so that’s why it’s important to stay up-to-date on your vaccinations so you can try to protect against any new strains,” she said.
“Even if you haven’t received a flu vaccine this season, it isn’t too late because substantial flu activity can occur as late in the year as May so you still have time to build your immunity before the second wave of the flu gets to our area.”
While getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent having the flu, other precautions are also urged since the virus is so contagious.
CDC findings show that people with the flu can spread it to others who are only six feet away – mainly through moisture droplets when people sneeze, cough or talk but also through touching surfaces that have the virus already on them.
Marshall said some of the best prevention methods include:
• Washing hands often and thoroughly with soap and water.
• Disinfecting workspaces and your home if people there have been sick.
• Not sharing eating utensils, dishes and linens with someone who is sick.
• Staying at home away from others if you know you are sick.
“The flu can be highly contagious even for 10 days so many times we pass it on even when we are feeling better,” Marshall said.
“If you have flu symptoms contact your healthcare provider immediately. There are prescription medications that can shorten the length and severity of your illness but to be effective they should be started within 48 hours of the onset of your symptoms. This same prescription can also be given to your family to protect them from catching the flu from you.
“Other than the prescription medication, over-the-counter products can also help with symptom control and it’s important to stay as hydrated as possible for the duration of the sickness.
“ You should also be aware that the flu can lead to secondary bacterial infection that would require treatment with antibiotics, so it is important to follow up with your primary care provider to monitor for bacterial infection if you are not getting well, or if you improve and then worsen again with another onset of fever.”
Flu vaccinations can be obtained at most healthcare providers’ offices as well as some pharmacies and urgent care centers. Marshall said her office can also administer flu vaccines by calling 256-386-1436.