By Heather Aspinall, MSc,
Communicable Disease Control Professional
According to health experts, the upcoming flu season will likely be a difficult one. This comes after a long 2018/2019 season. Are you prepared for the upcoming season? Here is what you need to know about the flu and some steps that you can take to protect yourself from getting the flu and spreading the infection to others.
What is the Flu?
Influenza, also known as the flu is an infection of the nose, throat and lungs that is caused by various influenza viruses. Although you can get the flu at any time of the year, flu season generally occurs during the fall, winter and early spring, with most of the activity happening between December and February. Every year in Canada over 3,000 persons die and around 12,000 are hospitalized as a result of the flu.
Illness can range from mild to severe. The flu can increase your chances of getting other illnesses such as bronchitis, pneumonia, ear and sinus infections, respiratory failure and worsening of other medical conditions, especially if you fall into one or more of the following groups:
- Young children, particularly those under 6 months old
- Seniors 65 years and older
- Pregnant women (the longer the pregnancy, the higher the risk)
- People who have cancer, diabetes, heart, lung, blood and nervous system conditions, kidney disease or other conditions that weaken the immune system.
- Residents of nursing homes and other chronic care facilities.
You can easily spread the flu to others even before your illness begins. When an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, small droplets containing the virus are released into the air. These droplets can then be inhaled or can land in the nose, mouth and eyes of another person, or on surfaces which are touched by another person and rubbed into the eyes, nose or mouth.
Illness usually starts with a sudden fever and chills, cough, runny nose, stuffy nose, and sore throat. Some people may get headaches, joint or body pain, and tiredness. Young children may also get nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Most will get better after 7 to 10 days.
Healthy people who get the flu do not necessarily need medical treatment. If you develop shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fever lasting more than 3 days, bloody or coloured mucus or if you fall into one of the high risk groups described above, get medical attention as soon as possible. Your healthcare provider may prescribe antiviral drugs that help to treat the illness.
You can protect yourself, your loved ones and others from getting and spreading the flu by taking the following actions:
- Eat healthy foods, drink plenty of fluids, get enough sleep and exercise regularly to keep your immune system strong. This will help your body fight infections.
- Keep your hands clean. Wash your hands often using soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Use enough sanitizer to cover all the surfaces of your hands and fingers, then rub your hands together until all the product evaporates. Teach your children how to clean their hands properly.
- Get the flu shot, especially if you fall within one or more of the high risk groups above. Vaccination helps to prevent the infection, as well as lower your chances of getting severe illness and serious complications. The vaccine is free for all residents of Ontario and is widely available at doctors’ offices, pharmacies, and community clinics.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth to prevent germs from entering your body.
- Do not cough and sneeze directly into your hands. Use tissue or paper towel to cover your cough or sneeze, then throw out immediately after each use and clean your hands. Cough or sneeze into the bend of your arm or your sleeve (sleeve sneeze), if no tissue or paper towel is available.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched and shared surfaces such as doorknobs, remotes, light switches, toys, phones, and keyboards. Do not share articles such as linens and utensils used by someone who is sick. Wash these items with soap and water before use. The flu virus can survive on surfaces for up to 24 hours. You can kill the virus using heat, alcohol-based, chlorine-based and detergent-based products, hydrogen peroxide, and iodine-based antiseptics.
- Stay home from work, school and other activities and limit contact with others until 24 hours after you are feeling better. An infected person can spread the virus to others from one day before becoming sick and up to five days after. People with weakened immune systems and children may be able to spread the virus for longer. Droplets containing the germs can travel up to 3 feet, so keep your distance from people who are sick with the flu.
(Heather Aspinall, works in Food Safety for Toronto Public Health.)