Your Questions on the Aggressive Flu Season 2018, Answered

By Haley Hite, Marketing Strategist

Influenza (flu) season happens every year, like clockwork, from late fall through winter. You’ve probably gotten the flu at some point in your life – the muscle aches, the congestion, the cough, and fever. It’s no fun, but within a week or so, you usually start to feel better. So when we talk about an unusually aggressive flu season, you may be wondering, what makes this year any different?

While we don’t know for sure how many people get the flu each year, because it tends to be a mild illness that doesn’t require a doctor’s visit or hospitalization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that flu has resulted in between 9.2 million and 35.6 million illnesses each year in the United States since 2010.

Every flu season is different because every year, the flu spreads and the virus mutates, but the timing, severity, and length of the season varies from one year to another. Flu viruses are constantly changing, so it’s not unusual for new flu viruses to appear each year. This means that one year can be a mild flu season, with fewer incidents of both mild and severe cases, and the next can be vastly different.

Why the 2017-2018 Flu Season is So Bad

That’s what we’re facing this year. This flu season is more aggressive than recent years, even more so than 2014-15 flu season, which is considered the most severe in recent years. In addition to other area hospitals, Firelands Regional Medical Center is seeing an influx in flu patients, and this influx is comparable to the 2014-15 flu season at this time.

Most of the influx we’re seeing is from the elderly (65 and older), and the very young (younger than five but especially those under age two). Other individuals at high risk include those with compromised immune systems, pregnant women, and residents of nursing homes or long-term care facilities. But it’s not necessarily the flu that’s causing these individuals to be hospitalized. It’s the flu complications that can result in hospitalizations or even death.

Flu complications may include pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections, ear infections, or chronic health problems (like asthma) that are made worse from having the flu.

How are Flu Patients Treated in the Hospital?

The answer to this question of course depends on what flu complications the patient may be suffering from. Typically when a patient is hospitalized with the flu, they are given supportive treatments such as an antiviral medication like Tamiflu, rest, and fluids. These patients are monitored closely for secondary infections related to the flu, such as pneumonia. “The sooner a patient is recognized as having the flu, the more useful antiviral treatments like Tamiflu may be,” said Dr. Michael Blank, MD, who specializes in infectious disease. “Antivirals can help shorten the duration and severity of the flu, but they are most effective when taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.”

Widespread and Dangerous

Flu is widespread in 46 states, according to reports to the CDC. At least 106 people had died of the infectious disease throughout the country as of mid-December. During the month of December, the flu became widespread throughout the state of Ohio. According to the Erie County Health Department, Ohio has seen one pediatric flu death of the 2017-18 flu season, and the CDC is reporting influenza A (H3N2) viruses as the most common circulating this season. This strain is included in this year’s flu vaccine.

That being said, vaccine effectiveness against H3N2 viruses has been around 30 percent.

“We are experiencing about 50 percent [effectiveness] for Influenza B,” said Patty Martin, vice president of quality and patient satisfaction. “Both A and B influenza viruses have been identified this season. And, although the flu vaccine can vary as to how well it works, people who do get sick are reporting milder symptoms if they have been vaccinated.”

“We have been working with the Erie County Health Department Epidemiologist and we agree that although Erie County activity is moderate, State of Ohio activity is high and widespread, and this high activity and could reach Erie County soon, necessitating additional safety precautions,” said Patty Martin.

Don’t let the effectiveness of the flu vaccine sway you from getting one, if you haven’t already. Remember: some protection is better than no protection. Having the flu vaccine may make your symptoms milder if you do contract the flu. For those who have not received a flu shot but would like to, many area facilities are still providing the vaccinations. The CDC has an online tool that allows you to type in your ZIP code, and will display any area locations offering flu shots.

It takes about ten days for the flu vaccine to take effect in the body. Flu vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body. Those antibodies provide protection against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine.

Hospital Visitor Guidelines to Stop the Spread of the Flu

Firelands Regional Medical Center has recently implemented visitor limitations to help prevent the spread of the flu to our patients, guests and staff members. This means that those under the age of 18 are encouraged to not visit the hospital, and those with the following flu-like symptoms should also avoid visiting:

  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms (occasionally)
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Sore throat

And don’t mistake your symptoms for the common cold.

“If you have cough and congestion, it may not be just a cold,” said Dr. Blank.

A cold is not typically accompanied by fever and body aches, so if you have all of these symptoms, it’s likely the flu or a flu-like illness. Help to prevent the spread of the flu by staying home, washing your hands often, and covering your mouth with your arm when coughing or sneezing, even if you think you may only have a cold.

“The flu virus is extremely contagious,” said Dr. Blank. “It can be easily spread through droplets when people cough, sneeze, or talk, and it is even possible to infect others before you know you are sick.”

The ease of which the flu spreads is one of the causes of an aggressive flu season. The more the flu spreads, the more likely it is to reach high-risk individuals such as elderly or infants, who may have more severe symptoms and require hospitalization. That’s why preventing the spread of influenza is key.

“Firelands Regional Medical Center has set up extra hand sanitizing stations throughout the hospital in convenient locations, such as the entrance to the main campus cafeteria,” said Susie Cramer, director of infection control and patient safety at Firelands. “We encourage all guests to use the sanitizers as they’re passing by to help us stop the spread of flu and other illnesses.”

Over the past three months, Firelands has been evaluating the influenza activity in our community to assure the very best response for our patient, staff member, and community safety and satisfaction. Our response is guided by three factors:

  • CDC/Ohio Department of Health (ODH) assessment of the quantity of flu in Ohio—it is currently reported as high
  • ODH measure of activity of flu in Ohio—it is currently assessed to be widespread
  • Erie County Health Assessment measure of flu activity in our community—Erie County activity is assessed to be moderate

Erie County influenza activity is not high, but high, widespread activity in Ohio places our county at risk for high local activity.

“We will continue to monitor influenza activity on a daily basis to assure we are using best practices,” said Patty Martin. “We will adjust precautions and restrictions based on the needs presented by our patients.”

Check back often for updates on the 2017-2018 flu season.

Reviewed by Patty Martin, MOD, BSN, RN, FACHE, vice president of quality and patient satisfaction on January 15, 2018