Tracking the Flu

In the midst of the holiday season, the last thing we want to think about is illness.  However, the cold weather, travel and get-togethers with family and friends make the perfect combination for the spread of common winter viruses.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) tracks cases of the flu and flu-like illness throughout the year.  Each state is categorized from no flu activity, to sporadic illness, to local, regional, and finally widespread flu activity.  As of the beginning of December, Virginia was categorized as local activity.  The CDC flu site is: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/

Last year, the peak flu season occurred in our area during the months of mid-December 2012 to the end of January 2013.  In 2011, there was minimal activity with no spike or epidemic of flu in Virginia.  2010 gave us a typical flu season with a peak in illness beginning at the end of January which continued throughout February.

However, 2009 threw us a curve ball with most of the nation experiencing an early flu season beginning in September and peaking in October.  This was due to the re-appearance of the type A flu virus H1N1.   

As you can see, each year’s peak flu season can be slightly different from years previous.  However, we can generally expect to see an increase in cases of flu and flu-like illness beginning in mid-December and peaking in January or February.  That is why we recommend getting a flu shot in the fall.

There are three influenza viruses, types A, B, and C.  Epidemics of types A and B are seen during the winter months in the U.S.,  type C is thought to cause mild illness but not epidemics.  The viruses can mutate over time.  Antibodies your immune system made last year to the virus, either by receiving the vaccine or by getting the flu, may not recognize this year’s flu virus.  This is why the vaccine is offered yearly, to protect against both past and new strains.  These small differences in the virus also mean you could get the flu more than once during the winter season.  

Influenza is a respiratory illness.  That is, it infects the nose, throat, bronchial tubes, and lungs.  Oftentimes individuals mistakenly describe an illness with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea as “the flu.”   The primary symptoms of influenza, however, are high fever, cough, muscle aches, fatigue, headache, sore throat, and stuffy or runny nose.  Stomach symptoms are much more common in children than in adults.

The virus is highly contagious.  It is generally transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets, from coughing or sneezing.  An infected individual can begin spreading the virus one day before developing any symptoms, up to seven days after the onset of symptoms.  

Traveling around the holidays may contribute to an increase in the transmission of the disease.  As of the first of December, many southern states have seen regional flu activity.  Texas and Mississippi have seen a high volume of flu-like illness activity.  Even though we are not currently experiencing a high rate of flu here in Virginia, individuals who travel to these states or are exposed to infected people through airplane or other travel may bring the virus to our area.  

The annual flu vaccine is the primary line of defense against influenza infections.  During flu season, thorough and frequent handwashing is extremely important.  Finally, proper rest, nutrition, and exercise will help the body’s immune system function optimally to fight off infections.       

The content in this column is for informational purposes only.  Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment.  Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.

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