Thurston County Public Health Officer Gives Tips On How To Protect Yourself From The Flu



By Dr. Diana Yu, MD, MSPH, Health Officer for Thurston and Mason Counties

Typically at this time of year we see a lot of illness.  How do you avoid getting sick or spreading illness?  My usual advise holds true: cover your cough, wash your hands and stay home when you are sick.  What else can you do other than encasing yourself in a bubble?

Colds, influenza and other respiratory viruses are spread when someone coughs and sneezes on you.  Another way you are exposed is when you touch a surface that is contaminated with the virus and then touch your eyes or nose.  Depending on the type of virus, they can stay alive on surfaces for hours.  You can try to disinfect a surface before you touch it, or wash your hands frequently, or avoid touching your nose and eyes.  However, if someone is rude enough to sneeze or cough on you, you are out of luck.

Is it a cold or the flu?  Influenza typically causes a sudden rise in fever, accompanied by chills, headache, body ache, maybe a runny nose and eventually a cough.  People sometimes say that they feel so bad  that even if there were a million dollars on the ground, they would not be able to bend over and pick it up!  Cold viruses usually starts with sneezing and a runny nose, maybe a low grade fever, then a cough.  Pertussis, or whooping cough, usually starts out like a cold but then the cough gets worse and lasts for weeks.  There are hundreds of unnamed cold viruses.  There are also other viruses like parainfluenza virus and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) that tend to cause more severe illness in kids.

Do you need to go to the emergency room when you have a respiratory illness?  Not necessarily.  You must know that sitting in an emergency room may not be the best thing for you when you are sick because other very sick people, some with contagious illness, may be next to you.  During regular working hours, try first to contact your own doctor for advice.  Drink plenty of fluids.

Go to the emergency room when you have influenza like illness with a high fever (greater than 103⁰C), and/or having difficulty breathing.  Persons with chronic heart and lung disease may be more prone to complications.  For them and the very young and old, an antiviral medication may help to prevent complications.   This can be prescribed by your own doctor without going to an emergency room.

Your health care provider usually has an answering service or someone you can talk to when their office is closed.  Try to contact then for advice.  There are times when you should not wait to get medical care, and have to go to an emergency room:

  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Signs of a heart attack.
  • Signs of a stroke, such as sudden onset of numbness in any extremity and elevated blood pressure.
  • A major injury, such as a head injury.
  • Bleeding that does not stop after 10 minutes of direct pressure.
  • Severe shortness of breath.
  • A severe or worsening reaction to an insect bite or sting, or to a medication, especially if breathing is affected.
  • Unexplained stupor, drowsiness, or disorientation.
  • Poisoning.
  • Vomiting blood.
  • Suicidal or homicidal feelings.
  • Signs of dehydration after vomiting and diarrhea – unable to stand because you become lightheaded or pass out
  • Fever accompanied by changes in level of consciousness, extreme headache and bruise like rash
  • Anything else you reasonably believe may be an emergency.

Remember that the emergency rooms are designed to help the most urgently ill or injured person and you may have to wait for a long time before you are seen.  While you are waiting, make sure to stay as far away from others who are coughing and sneezing.  If you are coughing and sneezing, ask for and wear a mask while you wait.

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