Gonzalo Bearman, chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, offers tips on how to prevent getting the flu and making a proper diagnosis.

At the peak of a peculiar flu season, VCU Health expert says basic principles still apply

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With the exception of Hawaii, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting that this year’s flu season has been widespread throughout the U.S., in its reach and its effect on susceptible populations. Media reports have highlighted a surprising number of pediatric deaths caused by flu, including at least one in Virginia. Influenza, more commonly called flu, is a highly contagious viral infection of the respiratory passages causing fever and severe aching, among other discomforts.

“This strain of flu, H3N2, has in the past been problematic, but it can still be treated and managed,” said Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and hospital epidemiologist at VCU Medical Center.

During the 2014-2015 flu season, H3N2 was also the dominant strain of the ailment and caused similarly high hospitalizations and deaths rates. Flu season begins in October, and usually peaks between December and January, ending around March. However, the CDC recently reported this flu season could be prolonged. In the thick of current concerns about flu, Bearman offers tips on prevention and making a proper diagnosis.

Gonzalo Bearman, M.D.
Gonzalo Bearman, M.D.

Are there any specific contributing factors that make this flu season particularly troublesome?

The current strain of flu is not more severe. There is simply high activity and poor match with the current vaccine. Also, there is a looming shortage of oseltamivir [Tamiflu], the medication to treat influenza.

It’s been reported that this year’s vaccine is only about 30 percent effective against this strain of flu. Is it too late in the season to get a flu shot and be protected?

It isn’t too late. A flu shot is always a primary way to stay protected against flu, during flu season and beyond. You will do much better overall getting a flu shot as opposed to not getting one. Even if the vaccine is not 100 percent effective preventing infection, it can make the illness less severe.

What is it about how influenza attacks the body that makes it potentially deadly?

Influenza can progress to influenza pneumonia, which leads to infection or inflammation of the lungs. It also predisposes a patient to bacterial pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, typically one to two weeks following the flu.

What are the practical ways to avoid contracting flu?

Respiratory and cough etiquette, as well as good hand hygiene, are critical. If you are sick with a flulike illness, the CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities.

What are the marked differentiating factors between a cold and the flu?

Influenza is more severe than the common cold, which is usually limited to congestion, sore throat and mild fever. The flu is exhibited by high fevers, congestion, body and muscle aches and can progress to pneumonia. If you’re experiencing the latter, you should see a physician. 

What can someone living with a person experiencing the flu do to avoid contracting it themselves? 

Caretakers and family of those who’re ill should also practice respiratory and cough etiquette and practice good hand hygiene.

What do you find are the most useful practices people forget about when it comes to protecting themselves against flu? 

Inadequate rest, poor hand hygiene and not getting vaccinated are simple things people neglect that can lead to contracting influenza.