WASHINGTON – So far, the Washington area is in the midst of a normal flu season. But if national trends hold, that is likely to change.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning that the 2012-2013 flu season is hitting early and hard. Widespread outbreaks are already being reported in several states: Alaska, New York, Mississippi and South Carolina.
The Washington region has not felt the full force of the this flu epidemic. CDC statistics show just sporadic cases in Maryland and D.C. and very localized clusters in Virginia. But local doctors fear that will change.
Dr. John Dooley with Foxhall Internists in D.C. says, “It may start with hot spots in certain parts of the country, but just with the way the influenza spreads and the extent to which people travel, it tends to spread rather quickly.”
Dooley is seeing a few patients with flu symptoms, but nothing out of the ordinary, he says.
Still, he is taking the warnings from the CDC very seriously, and is urging others to do the same. He says there is no room for complacency.
“We are certainly urging everybody to get a flu shot. Even young healthy people can benefit from influenza vaccination,” he says, noting protection from the disease begins to build within a few days of getting a shot.
Vaccinations are readily available at doctors’ offices, clinics and most pharmacies. They are recommended for just about everyone except babies under six months, and people who are allergic to eggs, because eggs are used to make the vaccine.
There are also medications available that can shorten the duration of the flu, such as Tamiflu and Relenza. But Dooley says they must be taken early when the first symptoms appear.
While colds and flu both affect the respiratory system, Dooley says it is important to know the differences between the two.
The main difference is that the flu tends to hit suddenly, while a cold can build for days.
“Fever is much more prominent, achiness tends to be quite pronounced,” Dooley says of the flu. “With the common cold there is rarely much of a fever that is high and sustained, and achiness, while sustained, is fairly minimal.”
Anyone with flu symptoms should contact their physician as soon as possible, he says.
Treatments work best if administered in the first 24 hours to 48 hours after the first signs of flu appear. And while they can cut the number of sick days for a patient, they are not a cure, Dooley says.