Flu season has returned to the Portland Metro area, doctors and hospitals say, as influenza tests and doctor visits rise across the state.
Southern Oregon reported a sharp increase in positive lab results for the flu beginning in early December, while the Portland metro area saw its numbers soar closer to the New Year. Hospitalizations, which typically lag behind positive lab tests, are now starting to increase, as well.
Everyone is at risk from the flu, including healthy adults. But those at greatest risk are young children, pregnant women, and seniors. Doctors say now is the perfect time to get a flu shot.
“The flu shot could save your life,” said Tri-County Health Officer Dr. Paul Lewis. “The flu shot is safe and effective. It’s the single best thing you can do to stay healthy this winter.”
What to expect this season
Health department staff in Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties began convening weekly calls with area hospitals in December, monitoring for a surge in ill patients and staff. They jointly determined that, based on trends in lab test results, emergency department visits and individual reports of severe illness, that the season has begun in earnest. A typical flu season lasts three to four months.
Once flu season is in full swing, hospitals take extra precautions to keep patients safe and prevent the spread of influenza. Those steps include making sure all employees get a flu shot or take other precautions to protect patients. Some hospitals may also impose visitor screening, age limits or other restrictions to make sure the most vulnerable patients don’t get sick.
Emergency departments ask anyone with mild symptoms to treat their illness at home with bed rest and lots of fluids.
“This time of year, urgent care centers and emergency departments can become crowded due to an increase in the number of patients seeking care for flu,” said John Townes, M.D., medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at OHSU. “Otherwise healthy people with mild to moderate flu symptoms can often be treated at home; they should contact their primary care providers first for treatment options before going to the clinic or emergency department. This can help ensure that high risk cases have easier access to emergency care, while lowering the risk of spreading flu to others.”
What is the flu?
Influenza is caused by a virus that reappears every winter and changes rapidly. That means even if you have had influenza before, a vaccination is needed every year.
The most common symptoms of influenza are fever, cough and sore throat. Often the onset of illness is sudden with chills and body aches. Illness in children can include vomiting and diarrhea. Influenza usually causes several days of what seems like a very bad cold, but it can also cause complications such as ear and sinus infections.
Even more concerning, however, are serious illnesses such as pneumonia and bacterial infections, which lead to hundreds of hospitalizations in Oregon every year and deaths in people of all ages. Last season 1,562 people were hospitalized with the flu, according to the Oregon Health Authority, and three children died.
What you can do to prevent the flu
Everyone can do something to stop the spread of influenza, and that starts with a shot.
“Flu takes several weeks to hit a peak and then a couple of months to be over, so now is a great time to get your flu shot,” said Tri-County Health Officer Dr. Paul Lewis. “The flu shot could save your life. It could save the life of someone in your family, and it could keep you from having a miserable week recovering in bed.”
While the best prevention is a flu shot, here are a few other tips to keep yourself and other people healthy this season:
Wash your hands: Scrubbing for 20 seconds with warm soapy water is better at fighting germs than hand sanitizer.
Cover your cough: Cough and sneeze? Elbow, please! Aim for your arm to stop spreading germs.
Stay home if you’re sick: Sleep, read a book, take a bath, pet your cat, sip soup, watch a movie. Just don’t expose other people by going to work or school!
What to do when you catch the flu
People with common symptoms such as fever, cough, body aches or fatigue should stay home from work or school, and limit contact with others.
People at high risk of serious flu-related complications should contact their primary health care provider for treatment options. Those people include young children, people over the age of 65, pregnant women or those with certain medical conditions such as severe lung, heart, kidney, liver, neurologic, or certain blood disorders.
If someone exhibits emergency warning signs of flu, such as difficulty breathing, blue lips, serious dehydration or sudden dizziness, they should go to the emergency room or call 9-1-1. Providers encourage patients to call for advice before going to urgent care or an emergency room.
Decision Chart: Health experts offer advice on whether to stay home, call a doctor or seek emergency care.
Find out about the Flu: Where to get a shot and when to get help in Multnomah County.
Learn about the Flu: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information on Influenza.
Track the Flu: Follow the spread of influenza across Oregon counties.