By: Sharna Johnson
For college students, the deeper they get into fall semester, the more there is to do. Exams are looming closer, major assignments and projects are coming due, papers are piling up, and there aren’t enough hours in the day.
Unfortunately, flu season is here, and it doesn’t care about the responsibilities and expectations weighing on college-goers.
The first New Mexico flu-related cases of the season, including one death, have been confirmed, according to an Oct. 24 alert from the state Health Department. The department is investigating what it referred to as an early-season outbreak in which five people at a healthcare facility have been diagnosed with flu, one of whom died of complications.
Flu can be devastating and even fatal for some people, especially those with high risk factors. While most aren’t likely to actually die from flu, you will probably spend days or longer with miserable symptoms that make you think you’re dying.
And while you will survive, it will probably be at the cost of lost work or school time – both of which can wreak havoc on the lives of college students.
Understanding the flu and taking steps to prevent getting or sharing it are important aspects of not only staying healthy, but for students who can’t afford to get sick, it means making sure the semester ends in success rather than stress and potential disaster.
Referring to “influenza” the term “flu” applies to numerous viruses – they change constantly and new ones appear all the time – that circulate and cause similar illnesses throughout the flu season.
Flu can include some, or all of these symptoms:
- Fever or feeling feverish/chills
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.
Because they share the same symptoms, it is virtually impossible to tell the difference between the common cold and the flu and to be sure, a test must be conducted by a healthcare provider within the first few days of illness, according to the CDC. One subtle hint, however, is that the flu, unlike colds which are generally milder, tends to have more severe and longer lasting symptoms with more complications.
Flu season is a period of high flu activity which usually starts when outdoor temperatures drop between October and December, and lasts until around March when weather warms. The reason for this is that viruses actually thrive in colder temperatures and dry air.
Highly contagious and typically spread through the air by coughing and sneezing, adults can begin spreading the flu as early as a day before they even have symptoms, which gives flu viruses a definite advantage. For this reason, experts advise that the moment someone realizes they are coming down with something, they take steps to reduce the chances of passing it on.
Flu vaccinations are recommended every flu season for anyone over the age of six months old, particularly those considered high-risk for flu complications: children under 5, pregnant women, people over 65, those with asthma, diabetes, lung or heart disease, or those immunocompromised, nursing home and long-term care facility residents, caretakers of people at high risk, American Indians and Alaskan Natives and those classified as morbidly obese.
Each year, vaccinations target the viruses expected to be most prevalent or impactful. For the 2017-2018 season, vaccines are designed to protect individuals from three to four (depending on the vaccine) flu viruses research predicts will be most common.
While numbers are a little hard to track because cases aren’t always identified, the CDC estimates between 9.2 and 35.6 million flu illnesses take place in America each year, hundreds of thousands of which result in hospitalization.
Flu-related deaths are even harder to track – according to the CDC a lack of testing or failure to code deaths as flu-related prevents an accurate count – however in the 2012-2013 flu season, for example, the CDC estimated 56,000 US deaths were likely flu-related.
Free Flu Vaccinations
ENMU Student Health Services offers free flu vaccines to current students, faculty and staff, said Makila Sena health services office manager. To get a flu vaccination, simply walk in to the clinic, located in Curry Hall, or call (575) 562-2321 for more information.
Flu season seems to be off to a delayed start compared to the same time last year when it had already begun circulating on campus, Sena said, which means students and staff still have an opportunity to be vaccinated and hopefully avoid the flu altogether this year.
Within two weeks of vaccination, antibodies develop in the system which protect the vaccinated individual against predicted and or common strains of flu virus.
If you do get sick:
It used to be respectable to power through and tough out an illness without missing work or school but not anymore, mostly because nobody else wants to get sick. Because of how quickly and easily flu can spread, if you begin to feel sick, the experts say stay home and avoid contact with people as much as possible.
If you are in one of the groups of people that have a high risk of flu complications, it is advised to seek medical treatment as early as possible. Antiviral medications can be prescribed as appropriate to help prevent complications.
For everybody else, staying home and self-treating with over the counter medications is the best way to go, and doctor’s care is not necessary unless you become concerned about your symptoms or don’t seem to be getting better.
Basic tips for dealing with the flu include:
- Wash your hands often and cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough to protect those around you.
- Stay home from work or school. Communicate with teachers about your illness and make arrangements to help keep from falling behind. If possible, use Mediasite to watch lectures from home, ask teachers for any materials or instructions they’ve given in class, and borrow notes from other students if online lectures aren’t available.
- Stay away from people who are in high risk groups for flu complications.
- Use over the counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) to reduce fever and ease body aches and discomfort. Decongestants and expectorants can help with congestion and coughs.
- Drink plenty of fluids and eat healthy to help your body fight the virus.
- Get plenty of rest.
- If symptoms worsen or persist longer than a few days, it’s probably time to seek medical help. Student Health Services is available for walk-in or by appointment, and services are low or no-cost for current students.
- The general rule: it’s safe to return to normal activities a minimum of 24 hours after the last incidence of fever or vomiting.
While the best option is to get vaccinated and skip flu season altogether, if you do have the misfortune of getting sick, follow the advice that’s out there to keep it from getting worse and hang on – you will survive.