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Combatting Cold & Flu Season

Taking advantage of telemedicine and timely flu shots key to staving off 2015-16 flu

In my household, there has been a whole lot of hand washing and wiping down surface areas going on. One of my family members has a "summer cold." The virus is the same as a winter cold, just far more unfair because you feel horrible knowing outside holds sunshine and warm weather. That just adds insult to injury when you are sick. I know it feels a little early to say that it is cold and flu season, but you and I both know viruses do not care what time of year it is.

According to the CDC, flu outbreaks starts as early as October and lasts as late as May. Typically, flu peaks between December and February.

In the hospital setting, I would hear about positive cases of influenza - or the flu - starting in August. The infectious disease practitioner would stop by my office and let me know we had a positive case and that she was monitoring what was happening to see if we were going to have an early flu season. Understanding patterns of spread and peaking time of the virus would help us to plan accordingly for staffing and care in the hospital setting.

SEE ALSO: Hand Hygiene 101

Anticipating Flu
But, nothing ever goes as planned. And when it comes to the flu, that rings true more so than anything else. Take last year for example: The vaccination developed was not as effective as hoped for due to the drifting or changing of the virus that was present in the community.

According to last year's CDC data, influenza for the 2014-15 season peaked earlier on the East Coast, but stayed in circulation with high rates for a longer duration on the West Coast. Large cities on both coasts were hit the hardest, and the population density made the disease spread faster. The Midwest had the highest rates of influenza overall and actually peaked first. So what does this mean? Depending upon where you live, how much you travel or work with those who travel, the timeframe of the virus' arrival in your community varies significantly.

Knowing the virus will arrive in your neighborhood sometime soon, what can you do? First and foremost, get your flu vaccination. It's recommended getting the vaccine no later than October.  It takes 2 weeks for antibodies to begin protecting from the flu. Though vaccine shipments begin in the summer, it's available until all vaccines have been distributed. Patients should be encouraged that it's never too late, even if they missed the ideal vaccine period.

In the past, the nasal vaccine (LAIV) is approved for healthy children ages 2 through 8. Last June, however, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) reversed this position, based on new data that doesn't confirm the superiority of the nasal vaccine. Today, ACIP doesn't state a preference between the nasal vaccine or flu injection.

This year, several strains have been added into the vaccine, including H1N1. Change your behavior and develop a plan of action before someone becomes ill in your household or you pass the bug along to your patients. Practice good hand hygiene at all times. Alcohol-based rubs such as a surgical hand scrub are excellent to have on hand, particularly when you are on the go. Disinfect surfaces with bleach and alcohol-free disinfectant cleaner and consider using an antiviral face mask with zinc, copper and citric acid, which inactivates 99.99% of tested influenza viruses on the mask's surface after 5 minutes of contact, especially when you are caring for someone who is suffering from influenza.

Telemedicine Options
Also, it's worthwhile to urge your patients to consider telemedicine. Traditionally used to help doctors treat patients in remote areas, its popularity is growing to the point that it is more integrated into everyday health operations. Providers who offer telemedicine use email, patient portals, or video chat to enable a virtual visit with a doctor or nurse.

The connection between telemedicine and flu season is significant, such as  flu symptoms diagnosed and any necessary prescriptions written without patients having to leave the comfort of home. It also protects healthcare workers and other vulnerable patients from being exposed to the flu virus, and protects individuals from picking up something worse when their immune system is already compromised.

If telemedicine is not an option, clinicians should as much as possible, review containment plans and distance patients with symptoms from others to help mitigate exposure potential. People with the flu can spread it to others, up to 6 feet away, according to the CDC.

While you might not be able to ensure that the flu doesn't move into your bedroom this fall - or any time of year -at least there's a lot you can do to send it packing if it does show up.

Martie L. Moore is chief nursing officer at Medline Industries Inc.

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