Influenza cases surged in December and resulted in the death of one elderly Yellowstone County resident, a bitter reminder that the flu can be fatal and that a flu shot is the best protection we have against it.

Influenza activity is now widespread across Montana. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services reports more than 600 cases, 100 hospitalizations and seven deaths in Montana due to influenza as of the end of December. The hardest hit have been infants to 18-year-olds, those over 65 and those with underlying medical conditions. In Yellowstone County, there have been 229 reported influenza cases as of Jan. 10, resulting in 70 hospitalizations and one death.

Influenza, commonly known as the flu, usually comes on more suddenly than a cold. Both colds and the flu involve sneezing, coughing, sore throat, runny nose and weakness. But flu symptoms often include fever, headache, chills and severe body aches and fatigue. Flu spreads primarily from person to person through coughing, sneezing and close contact with people who are sick.

The spike in hospitalizations for influenza in Montana is higher than at the same time last year, but the flu virus is fickle and constantly changing, making it impossible for experts to predict how deadly the “flu season” will be or how long it will last.

The one certainty: It’s not too late for you to get your flu shot. Vaccination is the most important step in protecting against influenza. While the effectiveness of the vaccine varies widely from season to season, a flu shot may make your symptoms milder if you do get sick and reduce your risk of hospitalization.

Everyone six months or older should be vaccinated each year, especially those who have underlying health conditions. The vaccine is very safe, and because this is not a live virus vaccine, you cannot get influenza from the vaccine. People at high-risk for developing flu-related complications include:

  • Children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2.
  • Adults age 65 and older.
  • Pregnant women and women up to two weeks after childbirth.
  • Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
  • American Indians and Alaskan Natives also seem to be at higher risk of complications.

Here are some more ways you can help stop flu from spreading:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are unavailable, use hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your face.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • If you are sick with a flu-like illness, stay home from work or school for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or necessities. Limit contact with others.

Most people with the flu have a mild illness and do not need medical care or antiviral drugs. Seek immediate medical care if you have trouble breathing, feel chest or abdominal pain, sudden dizziness, confusion, persistent vomiting, or symptoms that improve, but then return with fever or a worse cough. If you are at high risk for complications, talk to your health care provider about antiviral drugs early in your illness, when these medications are most effective.

Tamalee St. James is the Director of Community Health Services and Family Health Services at RiverStone Health. She can be reached at tamale.stj@riverstonehealth.org or 247-3357.

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