By Erica Quinones
Students’ return to campus heralds in both the new semester and the peak of flu season.
During the week of January 20, students beginning spring courses turned through their syllabi to find the “Attendance Policy” sections. Some professors delegated generous excused absences, others gave students no free days, but even the toughest teachers likely granted their class one excuse — the flu list.
The United States collectively suffers an annual months-long epidemic of influenza from around October until March. This year is no different, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimating at least 13 million flu cases, 120,000 flu-related hospitalizations, and 6,600 deaths from flu.
Flu is currently prominent in Maryland, whose influenza-like illness (ILI) activity level is labeled “HIGH” and “WIDESPREAD” as of Jan. 23. This means that the average percentage of ILI-related hospital visits is around eight standard deviations above the average percent of ILI-related hospital visits before flu season, and that the cases of ILI increased in at least half of the state’s regions, according to the Maryland Department of Health.
While flu symptoms are typically mild, they can be debilitating and potentially lethal. With fevers lasting three to four days, severe aches, chills, fatigue, and other symptoms such as sore throat, many patients are afflicted for upwards of two weeks.
Other patients, like adults over 65, pregnant women, people with heart disease, and children under five, are at higher risk of suffering flu complications like pneumonia or heart inflammation, which can turn deadly.
However, the flu is more than debilitating, it is contagious. Adults infected with influenza may be contagious a day before they develop symptoms and up to a week after becoming sick, according to CDC.
To protect oneself and others from the flu, Director of Health Services Lisa Marx suggests six measures.
“Get a yearly flu shot,” she said. “It is not too late. We saw active flu cases into April last year.”
Flu vaccines are considered the most effective prevention method by CDC and they recommend that everyone six months old and older should be vaccinated. The vaccine protects against the influenza viruses that are used to make it by causing antibodies to develop in the vaccinated patient about two weeks after being delivered, according to CDC.
The 2019-2020 vaccine includes this season’s two most common influenza viruses, B/Victoria and A(H1N1)pdm09.
Marx also said that students should wash their hands, cover their coughs and sneezes, and disinfect “high touch surfaces” like doors, toilet and sink handles, chair arms, desktops, keyboards, and cell phones.
Flu viruses are thought to spread primarily through droplets which originate from flu patients who cough, sneeze, or talk, according to CDC.
Uninfected people may get the flu by touching a surface that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, eyes, or nose. While this is less common than breathing in the virus, the flu virus can survive on some surfaces for up to 48 hours.
These viruses are killed by temperatures above 167 degrees Fahrenheit, chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, soaps, iodine-based antiseptics, and alcohols, according to CDC.
While there are steps students can take to prevent getting sick, Marx also suggested tips to make healing easier.
She said students should keep a “flu self-care kit” in their rooms, stocked with disinfectant wipes, fever reducing medications like Tylenol or Advil, fluids to drink, and tissues.
These supplies help students cope with flu symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches, headaches, fatigue, and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting.
While these are mild signs of flu, there are emergency symptoms for adults, including difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, persistent pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, persistent dizziness, confusion, seizures, not urinating, severe muscle pain or weakness, and fever or cough that worsen.
People who suffer these symptoms should contact their medical provider immediately, according to CDC.
Finally, Marx said that infected students should “avoid classes, campus engagements, fitness center and dining halls until you have been fever-free for at least 48 hours without the use of fever reducing medications.”
While other people can contract the virus from droplets on surfaces, the most common way the flu spreads is by those virus-containing droplets landing in the mouths or noses of nearby people or possibly be inhaled into their lungs, according to CDC. Thus, the safest thing sick students can do is stay in bed to rest.