When Gwen Zwanziger’s teenaged daughter came down with the flu last month, she did everything she was supposed to: had her checked at the local clinic, kept her hydrated, and insisted on plenty of rest. So when Shannon passed away a week later, Gwen was not only heartbroken, but baffled.
“I just cannot figure out why she died from this,” she said in a recent interview with Indiana's Fox59.
Though we’re not even halfway through flu season yet, we’re already hearing troubling stories, like the Zwanzigers’, and even more troubling numbers. At the time of writing, 15 American children have succumbed to the common illness since fall of 2014—a statistic that has parents understandably spooked.
Part of what’s at issue this particular flu season is a timing glitch. Viruses mutate regularly, but this virulent strain mutated just after the vaccine was completed, making the vaccine ineffective against it. Experts stress that the vaccine is still worthwhile and explain that each year, the vaccine is newly redesigned and covers several, but never all, strains of influenza.
Additionally, some context might help ease fears. The CDC’s definition of an “epidemic” depends on the ratio between cases of the disease and deaths from the disease. Because the number of cases changes as the season progresses, that percentage fluctuates, creeping above and falling below epidemic level (7.7%) sometimes several times in a year.
Not only that, but the numbers the CDC deals with are only marginally reliable. Pediatric deaths from disease are required by law to be reported to the government agency, but adult deaths are not. So, while the elderly are actually more vulnerable than children, we have no really fantastic way of knowing how deadly any bug actually is.
That doesn’t really help, does it? Okay, let’s talk about some stuff that does.
Across the board, expert advice falls into the categories outlined by flu.gov’s three-pronged approach to flu prevention. Let’s walk through each of those.
1. Get the flu shot.
Despite all the problems with the 2014 version, the flu vaccine is still the best way to avoid getting the flu. While a shot in the arm may not be your favorite way to spend a morning, the sore muscles are worth it! And as for that historical worry about getting the flu from a flu shot, you can cross that off your list of things to worry about. The vaccine is made from either dead or severely weakened viruses that can’t survive the warm temperatures of the inner body beyond the nose. No excuses!
2. Consider antiviral medications.
If you know you’ve been exposed to a flu virus, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication, though they’re usually reserved for those especially at risk. Antiviral meds are a bit controversial—inconclusive studies, worrisome side effects, and the larger risk of breeding stronger and more drug resistant viruses—so this ought to be considered as only a last resort.
3. Take common-sense precautions.
No offense to the human race, but this is generally where our efforts break down. I can say that because I’ve spent months now taking care of my very small children (two year-olds are not known for their common sense) who have contracted every single cold virus in existence this season! I shudder in horror every time my toddler moves her thumb toward her mouth, and my preschooler thinks all the world is his sensory bin—especially those lovely grooves on the underside of restaurant highchairs. Gah!
While my impulse is to douse my children in hand sanitizer every five minutes, there are more practical strategies. Here’s the official tip list from flu.gov:
• Wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub or hand sanitizer.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Germs spread this way.
• Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
• Practice good health habits. Get plenty of sleep and exercise, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat healthy food.
• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
• If you are sick with flu-like illness, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone without the use of fever-reducing medicine.
Want some other smart ideas? Here are a handful of doctors’ recommendations to make staying healthy a little easier:
• Avoid alcohol, caffeine, or anything else that messes with sleep patterns.
• Carry your own pen, water bottle, or anything else you might need on an outing so as to avoid handling something that a thousand other people have touched.
• If touching stuff is inevitable—say, at the gym or the grocery store—carry your own sanitizing wipes.
• Clean a little more frequently. Both at home and in the office, certain items get more love than others—door, fridge, and microwave handles; copier or elevator buttons; phones and remotes—and could use a wipe down every couple of days.
• My doctor is a big fan of nasal irrigation; and either as treatment or prevention, it works wonders to flush out impurities.
And finally, don’t forget to check our website for gear that could help keep everyone in your house safe and healthy. Our pandemic supplies include everything from hand sanitizer and respirator masks to biohazard waste bags. And the pandemic protection kit fits everything you might need in a handy 4-gallon bucket.
If better health is one of your new year’s resolutions, start out right with smart prevention practices! Keep yourself and your family safe this season, and let us know if you have any other tips and tricks for keeping the flu at bay.