Mendota Community Hospital employees Toni Piller, RN, left, and Christy Kelson, RN, show some items available near the front door of the hospital to help protect yourself and others from contagious illnesses including the flu. (Reporter photo by Bonnie Morris)
MENDOTA - If you get the flu, do everyone a favor and stay home. That is one piece of advice offered by Toni Piller, RN, infection control nurse at Mendota Community Hospital. Piller also strongly recommends getting a flu shot, even though we are well into flu season.
"It's not too late to get vaccinated and around here, we have plenty of vaccine," Piller said. "The best prevention is getting a flu shot - it truly is. We offer the flu vaccine for our employees and most of them choose to take it."
Piller acknowledged that some people who get the shot will come down with the flu anyway. "I've read that the vaccine is 62 to 65 percent effective," she said. "But it lessens the symptoms - how sick you get - if you have the shot."
This year's flu outbreak is not confined to one part of the country. Rather, it has been making national news with states such as New York reporting widespread illness along with a shortage of vaccine. Although Illinois is among the states reporting the highest number of flu cases, in the Mendota area the numbers do not appear significantly higher than other years. "It's just that the flu season started earlier this year," Piller said. "During the last two weeks, we've seen a peak in the number of flu cases. Now, the numbers are starting to go down some."
Piller pointed out that most of the people seen at MCH with the flu have been older. She explained that usually the flu does not require hospitalization or specialized treatment. "People don't have to do much unless they get into trouble with breathing, can't catch their breath," she said. "We've had some patients with flu in the hospital but we haven't had any deaths [from the flu], which is wonderful."
How do you know if you have the flu?
People sometimes say they have the flu when they actually have a stomach virus. Piller said the flu is a respiratory illness that comes on quickly. "People usually have a sudden onset high fever (temperature over 101) and body aches that feel like you're just going to die from it," she chuckled. "But you don't. You usually get through it."
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), other flu symptoms may include fatigue, stuffy nose, cough, headache and chills, although not everyone with flu has a fever. There are other respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis and pneumonia that may produce similar symptoms, however. "You can't be certain what you have unless you are tested," Piller pointed out. "The test can tell if it's influenza and what type it is."
Because the flu is a virus, it is not treated with antibiotics. For most people, the treatment includes staying home and resting, taking fluids and over-the-counter medications to reduce fever, and letting the illness run its course. Piller said an antiviral drug, Tamiflu, can be prescribed by doctors but it must be taken within the first 48 hours of becoming sick. "Tamiflu will lessen the severity of the flu and might shorten the duration a little bit," she said.
Making the decision to stay home from work or school is not always easy, but Piller emphasized that it is best to err on the side of caution. "If you don't feel good and you've got a fever and a sore throat or a cough, you might have the flu," she said. "Stay home. That's what CDC says and that's what we advocate at the hospital."
How long should you stay home?
The CDC recommends staying home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (without the use of fever-reducing medicine), except to get medical care. To help prevent the spread of the flu, the CDC suggests the following:
• Limit contact with others as much as possible.
• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after use. If you do not have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper arm.
• Wash hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth; this is how germs spread.
• Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs.
There is no hard and fast rule to determine how long someone with the flu is contagious. The CDC says a person may be contagious starting the day before symptoms develop and continuing from five to seven days afterward. Some people, especially young children and people with weakened immune systems, might be able to infect others for an even longer time.
Due to the flu outbreak, MCH recently began restricting visitors to individuals 18 years of age and older and only two visitors per patient at a time. "That's because this year, we've seen the flu affect young people and older people," Piller said. "So we try to keep the kids out especially when we have cases on the floor. We don't want them walking into anything."
Although MCH has seen the number of people with influenza-like illnesses decrease in the past week or so, the flu season can last until May and there is no way of knowing if the downward trend will continue. Piller said the hospital keeps track of how many flu cases come through the emergency department each week and reports that number to the Illinois Department of Health. "They have a whole state map of where we're seeing the highest concentrations of people with those types of illnesses," she said.
Piller noted that she felt the pandemic flu that hit a few years ago was more of a concern than this year's outbreak. "That was a new flu. Nobody had any immunity to it, so it was a huge issue," she said.
In contrast, this year's flu virus is quite similar to last year's. "It's just that it started so much earlier this year. It kind of caught everybody off guard," Piller explained. "I don't think it's that much more serious than anything else we've seen - just early. That makes it a long winter."
As a long time infection control nurse at MCH, Piller emphasized that all necessary precautions are being taken and patients can feel safe coming into the hospital. For more information about influenza, visit www.cdc.gov or call the CDC at (800) CDC-INFO (232-4636).