How to protect health, finances during flu season

by Alicia Balog

As students prepare for both the upcoming winter and finals week, Kent State University and health departments throughout the country recommend preparing for flu season as well.

What is the flu?

The “seasonal flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by flu viruses” that usually lasts one to two weeks, according to flu.gov.

Flu season, which began in October, typically goes to April or May depending on the year, said Becky Lehman, director of health education and promotion at the Portage County Health Department.

Approximately 5 to 20 percent of people get the flu, according to flu.gov, Lehman said despite what people say, a person does not get the flu due to a bad winter season.

“It’s because everybody is inside and then they’re passing around their germs with one another,” she said.

Flu Symptoms

Fever of 100 degrees or higher
Cough
Runny or stuffy nose
Headaches
Body aches
Chills
Fatigue
Less likely: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea (more likely in children)

Source: Flu.gov

A person, who may or may not know he or she is sick, spreads the germs that cause the flu after coughing or sneezing, which are two of the symptoms of the flu along with fever, body aches and a stuffy nose.

“You also want to watch large gatherings or being around sick people, but you don’t always know that people are ill,” said Joan Seidel, infection preventionist and registered nurse at Robinson Memorial Hospital. “You can actually be spreading it for 24 hours before you know you’re spreading it.”

This year, Seidel said she has seen very minimal flu activity as of mid-November but that usually the area sees an increase in cases in January and February.

“I have not seen one case come through our hospital yet,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that physicians aren’t clinically diagnosing people and not even bothering to test. So there might be some that are diagnosed that way but we’ve not had any inpatients with influenza yet.”

The flu varies year from year, Seidel said.

“You never know when it’s going to really start to pick up and show cases although typically we’re more in that January-February range but some years it started pretty,” she said.

How to prevent it

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot, and according to flu.gov, Dec. 7 to 13 is National Influenza Vaccination Week.

The shot contains four strains of the virus, two A strains and two B strains. Lehman said the A strains are H1N1, which has been a part of the shot since 2009, and H3N2.

“One of the virus mutates and changes ever so slightly or maybe there’s one that comes from a different part of the country or different country and now that’s coming over and we got to make sure that is,” she said. “So scientists usually during the summer go through and go using their logical explanations go which ones do we what four strains do we think are going to be the top four this year.”

Seek medical help when:

If you have these symptoms, seek help:

Difficulty breathing
Severe vomiting
Chest or abdomen pain
Lip discoloration
Dizziness
Confusion
Seizures

Source: Flu.gov

The Portage County Health Department hosted clinics in October and charged $10 for children, except for those 18 and younger who were free, and $30 for adults. The department, and pharmacies in stores such as CVS and Walgreens that also provide flu clinics, also take most insurances.

The flu shot at CVS is $31.99 if a person pays out of pocket. Mike DeAngelis, public relations director for CVS, said all CVS locations offer walk-in flu clinics with shots done by its pharmacists, and in markets where we have Minute Clinic inside, such as the one in Kent, a nurse practitioner is available to administer the shot.

CVS vaccinated a little more than five million people last year, DeAngelis said, and have vaccinated more people at this point this year than last year.

“The last couple of years we’ve seen spikes in the cases of flu in January so I think that people are recognizing that fact and getting vaccinated as we head into January, as we came into fall and late winter,” he said.

Also washing hands for at least 20 seconds or using hand sanitizers that are 68 percent alcohol can help prevent the spread of germs that cause the flu, Lehman said.

“You used to do it in school you would sing ‘Row row row your boat’ twice,” she said. “That’s how long. And you need to wash the back of your hands and underneath your fingernails as well.”

The cost of the shot

If a person gets the flu, which can last up to two weeks, Lehman said they should stay home.

“Avoid going into work,” Lehman said. “Make sure if you have gone into work and then maybe you’re sick the next day that the next time you do go to work, that you wipe down all of your surfaces with the wipes — antibacterial wipes.”

DeAngelis said it is cost effective to get a flu shot, which may be covered by insurance, to prevent the flu and incurring higher expenses down the road. “Getting that vaccination now prevents you from getting sick, which could lead to incurring higher costs down the road whether it’s through missing work, whether it’s through developing more serious complications, getting the flu and being hospitalized,” he said.

For instance, the median weekly earnings of a full-time wage and salary worker in the U.S. is $790, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If a full-time worker was to catch the flu, the person should stay at home according to CDC recommendations.

So the worker would miss up to two weeks of work and lose $1,580 — not including costs for potential hospital or doctor’s visits.

Misconceptions

Despite being able to prevent the flu and the loss of class, work or money, Lehman said some people refuse to get the flu shot, thinking it actually causes the flu.

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“It takes the flu seven to 10 days to actually come out,” she said. “So ‘OK I’m sharing an office with somebody that has the flu and oh man I don’t want to get the flu so I’m going to get my flu shot.’ Well honey you’ve already been exposed. So they get sick because they’re already been exposed. Then they think oh the flu shot gave me my flu.”

Other people may mistake cold symptoms for flu symptoms. Lehman said though some symptoms are the same, if a person has a cold, he or she usually does not have a fever or body aches.

The flu also has symptoms similar to the virus Ebola. When Dallas nurse and Kent State graduate Amber Vinson visited northeast Ohio in October, it raised concerns that the virus would spread in the area.

Lehman said during the scare, she thinks people may mistake flu symptoms for Ebola symptoms.

However she said it’s not just the symptoms but the questions of traveling to West Africa or coming into contact with the bodily fluid of someone who has the virus.

“If the answer is no to those, you don’t have it. The end,” she said. “If you didn’t come from Liberia and you didn’t kiss on somebody that has been diagnosed, you’re OK. But I think during the big hype, yeah that was a fear but it’s unfounded.”

Seidel said Robinson Memorial Hospital asks patients who come in if they had visited those regions but only as a precaution.

Though the risk of getting a virus such as Ebola is low, Seidel said it is more likely a person will get the flu even if he or she eats healthy, gets rest and has a good immune system.

The best way to prevent the flu is through the shot, both Seidel and Lehman said.

“Get your flu shot. It is time,” Lehman said. “That is the number one best way to keep yourself from getting sick.”