When cold weather descends on Northeast Ohio, the promise of another annual event is usually not far behind – the flu season.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, there have been at least 22 million illnesses, 230,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths from the flu so far this season in the United States, as of Dec. 31, 2022.
And while the flu season may have started earlier this year than in years past, Cleveland Clinic infectious disease specialist Dr. Donald Dumford spoke with the Cleveland Jewish News about how residents should still be vigilant when it comes to the annual illness – especially as it makes its rounds at the same time as RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, and COVID-19.
“What surprised me this year with RSV and the flu is how early their seasons came up, and how many cases we were seeing,” Dumford said. “If you look at flu trends over the last 10 years, we’ve had the most cases out of any year over the last 10. Typically, our flu season peaks in January or February, but we hit our peak about two weeks ago.”
And while disease trends suggest an early peak, Dumford noted that doesn’t mean a second wave isn’t on the horizon.
“There is still a lot of flu out there right now, and we could see a late bump in the season,” he said. “In the hospitals, (this year) is not terribly different. While the flu is a problem every year, we typically will see a handful of patients at any point in time with the flu or RSV, typically elderly patients 60 years or older or young children. The average patient may not be hospitalized, but they are knocked on their bottom for a few days.”
Recently, two of his colleagues got sick with the flu, Dumford said. Seeing their illness progression reminded him and his co-workers “how sick people actually get when they have the flu.”
“It is a real reminder of how bad it can be,” he said, noting that as a result of a weakened immune system from the flu, patients can also experience other illnesses like ear infections or even bacterial pneumonia.
Similar to past flu seasons, Dumford said symptoms usually start with an abrupt onset of fever, sore throat and cough. That’s in contrast to current COVID-19 strains, where one would typically see a slower onset, similar to colds.
“With the flu, you can typically time it down to the minute you got sick,” he said. “There are typically also body aches.”
As for most respiratory illnesses, most treatment for flu consists of supportive care.
“Take it easy and listen to your body,” Dumford said. “Make sure you get plenty of fluids and as much nutrition as you can.”
For those with underlying medical conditions, Dumford also suggested consulting with their doctor to see if they can get a prescription for Tamiflu, an anti-viral medication used to treat and prevent influenza A and B, viruses that cause the flu. Many physicians recommend it for people who experience complications or are at high risk of complications from the flu.
“Pretty much listen to your body,” he said. “If you’re at home and you’re not experiencing shortness of breath or light headedness, it’s probably OK to watch it at home. But it’s time to get ahold of your doctor if you have chest pain and shortness of breath paired with a high fever.”
To avoid illness in the first place, Dumford stressed the importance of flu vaccination, which is covered by insurance usually at no cost to individuals.
While sometimes people claim that after they got their shot they “got the flu,” the vaccine doesn’t include a live virus, Dumford said. What they’re experiencing is instead an immune response, the body’s way of training itself on how to respond should it come in contact with a live virus.
“If you don’t have any medical conditions that prevent you from getting the vaccine, that is the best way to protect yourself,” he said. “Even if you do get the flu, vaccinated individuals will see less severe illness.”
Many individuals try to time their flu vaccination around the holidays or large gatherings, but at this point, Dumford said the ideal time has passed and individuals should get the vaccine as soon as they can.
“The ideal time this year would’ve been late October, early November before we started seeing cases going up,” he said. “We’re past that point, so the ideal time is now. You want to make sure you’re protected while we ride the wave. It’s not too late. If you’re reading this and aren’t vaccinated, put down your copy of the CJN and get your vaccine.”
Dumford also suggested wearing a face mask in public during flu season or if you’re feeling ill, noting it is a personal choice. Don’t hesitate to cancel plans or isolate yourself for the duration of your illness too, he added, saying personal responsibility is a large part of curbing flu infections.
“If you’ve got a mild illness, wear a mask around other people or even avoid interactions altogether,” Dumford said. “Just because you’re feeling only slightly sick that doesn’t mean a family member or friend will also have a mild case. It’s about doing your best to protect those around you.”