Widespread outbreak of Influenza virus affects Arkansans of all ages

LITTLE ROCK – There is a widespread outbreak of the influenza virus in Arkansas, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the Arkansas Department of Health has reported increased hospitalizations and seven deaths in the state.

“This particular strain of the flu is insidious,” said Lisa Washburn, an assistant professor of health in the Family & Consumer Science Division with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. “Arkansans from the ages of six months to 99 years are being infected, and cases are more severe than in previous years.”

Just how do you know you have the flu and not a cold or other illness? Flu symptoms usually happen suddenly. You may notice fever, headache, fatigue, body aches or all of these symptoms together within a few hours. Other symptoms include severe aches and pains in the joints and muscles and around the eyes, generalized weakness, ill appearance with warm, flushed skin and red, watery eyes, dry cough, sore throat and runny nose.

While anyone without the flu vaccine is susceptible to contracting the virus, people at particular risk are women who are pregnant, children under the age of 5, adults age 65 years and older and those with chronic conditions such as asthma, COPD, heart disease or weakened immune systems. Older adults, young children and others at high risk should see a doctor if experiencing flu-like symptoms.

“Anyone who can take the flu vaccine should,” Washburn said. “The flu vaccine protects 60-80 percent of those immunized from getting the flu. If you do get the flu after you have been vaccinated, symptoms are likely to be milder and your illness shorter in duration. The flu vaccine also reduces the likelihood of hospitalization if you get sick from the flu.”

The flu vaccine is the first line of defense to protect against the flu. Second to getting the flu vaccine, frequent and thorough hand washing is the most effective way to prevent the flu. The flu virus is spread mainly through tiny airborne droplets released when coughing and sneezing. Practice thorough hand washing and use alcohol-based hand sanitizers to reduce your risk of becoming sick.

If you, your child or loved one is sick, stay home. Going to work, school or other public places can spread the illness to others.

“If you do get the flu, stay at home until you’ve had no fever for 24 hours,” Washburn said. “Flu symptoms usually persist for seven days, so be certain you are well before returning to your normal routine.”

Also, always cover your cough or sneeze to prevent germs from being released into the air and onto surfaces. Illness-causing germs picked up from contaminated surfaces can easily enter the body through your eyes, nose and mouth, so avoid touching your face.

According to the Arkansas Department of Health, the flu vaccine takes 10 days to two weeks to become effective. It is not too late to be vaccinated. Contact your local health units, private doctor’s offices, pharmacies and major retailers to inquire about vaccine availability.

For more information about the flu or staying healthy during flu season, visit extension’s website, www.uaex.edu, or contact your county extension agent.