Take It From a Mom & Infection Control Nurse: Flu is No Joke
Several years ago I saw firsthand how serious the flu can be and how helpless a mother can feel as you try to comfort your child who has influenza. The symptoms of influenza came on quickly, like “being hit by a truck,” my son stated as he came home early from football practice in mid-October. And yes, his symptoms were classic for influenza with a high fever, body aches, chills and a severe headache. Nothing seemed to help alleviate his symptoms as he groaned, “even the hair on my head hurts.”
For the next 5 days my 18-year-old son lay lethargic in a darkened room alternating between being bundled with up with blankets to combat his chills, to throwing them off as he dripped with sweat. Later, he told me each night was a new “torture” as different symptoms wracked his body, including nasal congestion, cough, nausea and vomiting. I felt helpless watching my son was suffering so. His illness could have been prevented with an annual influenza vaccine but the flu hit early that fall and since production of the influenza vaccine was delayed, we were all caught unprotected that year.
In 1918, during what we now call the Spanish Flu or Great Pandemic, a novel influenza virus killed world-wide between 50-100 million people (three to five percent of the world’s population) making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. Unique to this influenza outbreak, it had an extremely high attack rate for young healthy adults and the mortality rate for pregnant women was 50%. My grandmother’s 18-year-old brother died from influenza that year. I can’t imagine how helpless my great-grandmother must have felt watching her strong and robust son deteriorate so quickly after being infected with the virus.
While I carefully watched over my son during his illness, I was overcome thinking of the similarities between our family’s circumstances. It hit home how fragile life can be and how quickly and deadly infectious diseases can become. Thankfully my 18-year-old son recovered; my great-grandmother’s son did not.
So what, in 2018, have we learned about influenza in the 100 years since the Great Pandemic of 1918?
- The influenza virus can and does still kill. Each year, over 35,000 people die annually from influenza-related illnesses. So we need to stop calling everything “the flu.” In fact, there is no such thing as “stomach flu.” Influenza is a respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus and can cause mild to severe illness resulting in hospitalization or death.
- Influenza is contagious spread by droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk. In 1918 the existence of viruses was yet unknown and no one understood how it was spread. Now we know that influenza is spread via respiratory droplets that stay suspended for about 3 feet and can land on surfaces. So stay home if you are ill, cover your cough, and disinfect contaminated surfaces but most importantly, WASH YOUR HANDS! Either soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is effective against the influenza virus.
- Influenza can be prevented from an annual vaccine. No vaccine is perfect, but the influenza vaccine can and does prevent severe illness, reduces the severity of illness and, therefore, reduces your risk of hospitalization and death from an influenza-related illnesses. So as a nurse and a mom, if I can decrease the likelihood of getting the flu for myself or family member, I would take it. My great-grandmother didn’t have that option but we do now!
- The flu vaccine doesn’t give you the flu so just stop saying that. If you develop symptoms after receiving the flu vaccine that is just an unfortunate coincidence. Due to the influenza’s incubation period, you may have unfortunately already been exposed to the virus at the time of vaccination. It is NOT from the flu shot. If you experienced a low-grade fever, some mild body aches or a headache following vaccination, this most likely was your body’s immune system responding to the immunization. It’s simply not possible to get the flu from the vaccine.
- And lastly, we can now test for influenza and antiviral medications are available for treatment. People who are high-risk for developing flu-related complications are encouraged to seek medical care and treatment with an antiviral medication may be recommended to reduce the length and severity of their illness. Those at high risk include the following: Young children (especially children less than 2 years old), adults over age 65, pregnant women, residents of nursing homes or other long-term care facilities and persons with chronic health conditions.
Well, it’s time for me to get off my “soap box” but take it from this mom, who just happens to be an infection control nurse, get your annual flu shot and encourage your family to do so too. I think my great-grandmother would agree with me, that life is just way to precious. And folks, that hasn’t changed in the past 100 years.