How to Beat Flu Season
I trained as a Family Doctor so that I would be ready to help patients with any challenge. The old school family doc used to take that skill set out into the community on house calls, sports sidelines, and town hall meetings. At some point the job description was boiled down into a job that started and ended with a 7 minute office visit. That setup is not good for patients, and it's not good for doctors. In this column I hope to start to push the boundary of where the doctor patient interaction takes place - onto the page, into the community, and beyond 7 minutes.
This year in Maine there have already been 3,931 documented cases of flu (Maine DHHS surveillance reports through 2/16/19). As a primary care doctor I deal with the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease. Although I do recommend flu shots for my patients, if the conversation simply begins and ends with a flu shot important information has been lost.
Prevention starts with limiting exposure to germs. The mainstay of any infection control measure is handwashing. Especially during flu season using soap and water or an alcohol based hand sanitizer is vital in preventing exposure to viruses.
Many health care professionals will keep a container of hand lotion close by during the winter because hand washing and cold weather can lead to dry cracked skin. Open skin is a risk factor for infection.
Beyond hand washing, limiting exposure to others who are sick is crucial. Right now Earned Paid Sick Leave provisions are being discussed on the state and local levels. Proponents argue that allowing workers to take paid sick days prevents the spread of germs at work places. Especially for those working in education, restaurants, or other service industries the best thing to do if you become ill is stay home.
Even with proper hand washing, a yearly flu shot, and precautions at work it is still possible to catch the flu. It is important to understand that not all winter illness is the flu. Technically speaking the flu is an illness caused by the influenza virus characterized by high fever, body aches, abdominal and respiratory symptoms, and fatigue.
In order to differentiate the different causes of winter illness a health care provider will often elect to perform a rapid flu test. This involves using a small soft tipped swab to collect a sample from the very back of the nasal passage, which is then tested for flu virus. This can be done in most doctors offices.
Depending on the severity of illness there are options for treatment. The mainstay of any treatment is supportive - treating symptoms, assuring adequate hydration and rest. In some cases people may benefit from an antiviral medication such as Tamiflu or Xofluza. These medicines are FDA approved for treatment of flu but they are not curative. They are best used for severe symptoms which started in the last 2 days and may shorten the severity and duration of the illness.
Having a skilled health care provider who knows you and can guide you through the process of getting well will lead to a better experience.
See Dr. Gersten’s column in the health and wellness section of the West End News