Health Watch/Gladys Polzien, RN, MSN, CHPN

It is almost here – flu season. Now is a good time to review the facts about influenza. Influenza, also called the “flu,” is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. The 2013-2014 influenza (flu) season could begin as early as October, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the CDC, a person may be able to infect others with the flu for 5-7 days after they have become sick and a person may be contagious as soon as one day before showing symptoms of the flu. Pneumonia and influenza are the fifth leading cause of death in older adults in the U.S. It’s also good to know that Medicare provides coverage for one flu vaccine and its administration per influenza season for seniors and other Medicare beneficiaries with no co-pay or deductible. Flu vaccination can reduce flu illness, antibiotic use, doctors’ visits and lost time from work, as well as prevent hospitalizations and deaths.

One question many people ask is “How do I know if I have the flu or a cold?” Here are four key points that help distinguish the cold from the flu:

Fever is usually present with the flu, but rare with a cold.

Headache is a major symptom of the flu, but rare with colds.

Aches and pains can be severe with the flu, but usually mild in colds.

Extreme exhaustion can occur with the flu, but not with a cold.

Another question many ask is “What can I do to prevent getting the flu?” The CDC recommends “Take 3” steps:

Step 1 – Take the time to get your annual flu shot. The best method to prevent the flu is to have a flu shot annually.

Step 2 – Take every day preventative actions to try to prevent the spread of germs by covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it. Wash your 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. Germs spread this way. Try to avoid close contact with sick people.

Step 3 – if you get the flu-Take flu antiviral drugs if your doctor prescribes them. They are different from antibiotics. They are prescription medicines (pills, liquid or an inhaled powder) and are not available over-the-counter. Antiviral drugs can make illness milder and shorten the time you are sick. They may also prevent serious flu complications.

For people with high risk factors treatment with an antiviral drug can mean the difference between having a milder illness versus a very serious illness that could result in a hospital stay. Studies show that flu antiviral drugs work best for treatment when they are started within 2 days of getting sick, but starting them later can still be helpful, especially if the sick person has a high-risk health or is very sick from the flu. Follow your doctor’s instructions for taking this drug.

Hopefully reviewing these basic facts and preventative tips will help make a difference this year to prevent the spread of flu to you and help avoid potentially serious complications. If you have any questions, ask your health care provider. More information available online at

Editor’s note:?Gladys Polzien is director of operations at Aspirus Keweenaw Home Nursing and Hospice