by Hollie McAfee

As I write this blog, half of my family is home sick with the flu.  My husband is especially sick with chills and body aches, while my 13 year old son is sick enough to miss his last basketball game of his junior high career (that’s pretty sick.)  My daughter and I are holding out and hoping for the best, but after all of the stories I’ve been hearing about this year’s flu, I’m not confident we’ll escape the virus.

Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the flu is widespread in 47 states, which is a marked increase for this time of year.  The predominant virus going around is H3N2, which is known by experts to be particularly nasty and has not made its presence known in several years.   Only 37% of the U.S. population has been vaccinated this year, and of them, about 40% will still get the flu, although their symptoms may be less severe.

In Boston last week, flu cases were 10 times more frequent than last year, causing Mayor Thomas Menino to declare a public health emergency.  Some hospitals throughout the country are so overwhelmed with sick patients, they’ve had to turn people away.  The CDC reported that 7.3% of deaths in the country were caused by influenza, going above the threshold of 7.2% to be considered an epidemic.

I didn’t need these details to know the flu is bad.  Many of my friends have been sick and/or have had a house full of sick children.  Attendance at school has suffered.  I got my flu shot, and so did my husband and kids.  Our local newspaper in Houlton had a front page article about the flu.  The Bangor Daily News has written a few articles about the epidemic.  Posts about sickness are populating my Facebook news feed.

If the flu isn’t bad enough, Maine has also been hit with what they’re calling “winter vomiting disease.”   It is a very common error to call this the “stomach flu,” when it is actually not the flu at all, but gastroenteritis, often caused by norovirus.  Many people complain that their flu shot did not work, because they still got the stomach flu.  The flu vaccination is only effective against influenza viruses, that cause mostly respiratory and general symptoms like fever, cough, body aches and chills.  The flu shot does not prevent the common cold, which causes more “above the neck” symptoms like a runny nose and itchy throat.

Another common error is that antibiotics will help in flu recovery.  Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial illness, such as strep throat.  Illness caused by a virus, like the flu and the common cold, are not cured by antibiotics.

The best cure for the flu is time.  Get lots of rest, drink lots of fluids, and take pain relievers to reduce fever.  Antiviral prescriptions are available that may reduce the severity of the flu.  Very young or elderly patients, or those who have other health conditions, should be aware of the risks possible with the flu, and should consult their physicians if they get sick.

Most of all, hang in there during this flu season and take good care of yourselves!