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The Flu is Here! Now What?

Even though influenza is actively spreading through the Des Moines metro, there's still time to take preventive measures. Here's what you need to know to avoid the flu and what to do if you get it.

Man and women sick on the couch, coughing and sneezingIt's hard to escape the flu. Either you have it, someone you know has it or you're hearing about it on the news. Local news reports are filled with talk about statewide outbreaks, flu-related deaths and the effectiveness of the flu shot.

Now that flu season has hit, there are several things you need to know to stay healthy and flu-free.

You can still get a flu shot.

The reason public health officials and the media cover this topic heavily every year is that the flu is dangerous and it takes everyone to help prevent it from spreading. And the best way to prevent influenza is by getting the flu vaccine.

"It's not too late to get a flu shot because the flu season can extend into the month of May," says Dr. Kevin Cunningham, internist at The Iowa Clinic's West Des Moines campus. "While the vaccination may not be effective against a specific strain, it still is protective against influenza viruses, which is extremely important."

When flu season is in full-swing, the earlier you get vaccinated the better. It takes about two weeks for the antibodies in the flu shot to develop and protect against influenza. So schedule a flu shot with your primary care provider if you haven't been vaccinated.

Nobody is immune to the flu.

You're young. You're healthy. You might think the flu shot isn't for you.


Everyone should get a flu shot. Some strains are very serious. Even if you have a strong immune system, getting vaccinated helps protect those who don't, says Dr. Cunningham.

"Those at higher risk include the elderly aged 65 and older, children under the age of five, pregnant women and people who have chronic diseases such as asthma, COPD and diabetes."

If you choose not to get a flu vaccine because you don't fall into one of those categories or believe it's not going to work, next year's flu season could be even worse. And those at higher risk are more likely to experience complications and even death.

Influenza symptoms are not to be confused with the stomach flu.

The word "flu" is thrown around a lot this time of year. But the actual flu refers to influenza.

The stomach flu is a completely different infection and happens when a virus or bacteria causes inflammation and irritation in your gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms of the stomach flu (gastroenteritis, as it's known in the medical world) include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, cramps and stomach pain.

Influenza symptoms are very different. It's a respiratory issue, so you don't have all the stomach problems. Instead, you may experience:

  • Fever
  • Cough and sore throat
  • Runny, stuffy nose
  • Muscle and body aches (which may be severe)
  • Headache
  • Fatigue that can last two to three weeks

If you have flu-like symptoms, stay home!

Most people recover from the flu relatively quickly and without any complications. So the best thing you can do if you notice flu symptoms is to stay home. Rest is the best medicine for you. Staying home also helps stop the flu from spreading to others. Avoid close contact with your friends and family if you can.

While you're at home, drink plenty of liquids to stay hydrated and help your immune system. You can take over-the-counter medications to help manage your flu symptoms like fever, aches, cough and sore throat.

But if you see these warning signs, get medical help!

The news stories you hear every flu season are real. The flu can lead to some serious complications, especially in children and older adults. Last flu season was one of the worst Iowa has seen decades, particularly for the elderly. There were more serious outbreaks and the number of flu deaths doubled to 270.

A serious strain dominated the 2017-18 flu season. Even some people who got the flu shot got the virus. So you have to be mindful of the more serious complications of the flu.

Always consult your primary care provider for the best flu treatments. But if you see any of these warning signs, you or your loved one needs medical attention right away.

Emergency Flu Symptoms in Kids

Infants and toddlers can't tell you how they're feeling. When your kid comes down with the flu, consult your pediatrician for the best treatments. And watch out for these warning signs:

  • Breathing troubles or fast breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Difficult to wake from sleep or nap
  • Irritability or desire to not be held
  • Disappearing flu symptoms that return with worse fever and cough
  • Lack of interaction
  • Fever with a rash

If your child shows any of these symptoms, get them medical help immediately.

Emergency Flu Symptoms in Adults

Complications can strike adults, too. If you or a loved one — especially someone over the age of 65 — experience any of these symptoms, urgent medical attention is necessary.

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness or confusion
  • Severe vomiting

In Iowa, flu season is long. It can span half the year, starting as early as September and stretch into late May. If you follow the flu prevention guidelines — get vaccinated, wash your hands frequently and avoid obviously ill people — you have a better shot at making it through the season flu-free.

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