Editorial: Don’t let flu or fear get to you

Friday, January 12, 2018

‘Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.”

Albert Camus was writing about bubonic plague sweeping through the Algerian port of Oran in his novel The Plague, but he may as well have been describing flu season in New Hampshire. It happens every year, yet still manages to catch some by surprise.

Influenza arrives with the falling of the leaves, and tightens its grip slowly and relentlessly through late autumn and early winter. By February, it has usually established dominion over a winter-weary populace that has almost given up hope of ever again experiencing the sensation of sunshine on bare skin.

But before we arrive at the peak of flu season, we must first endure January – the month of fear, the month when stories of flu-related deaths and ineffective vaccines replace the uplifting, blue-sky narrative of the holiday season.

According to the most recent weekly flu map from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Hampshire is one of only four states in the country where flu activity is not widespread (the others are Hawaii, Maine and New Jersey). That’s the good news. The bad news is that our time will come.

There have been a lot of reports lately that this year’s flu vaccine hasn’t been very effective against a particularly nasty strain of the virus known as H3N2. But those of you who have already received your shot, take heart: You have reduced the chance that you will experience several days of pure misery. And those of you who haven’t, what are you waiting for? The CDC says it takes two weeks following vaccination for the antibodies that protect against the flu to develop in the body. You still have time, and there is no downside to getting a shot. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your children, co-workers and anyone else with whom you come into close contact.

There are other things you can do to avoid catching and spreading the flu, too, and they shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone: Stay away from sick people, wash your hands a lot, cough or sneeze into your inner arm (“the Dracula cough”) and if you think you have the flu, for the love of Pete stay home.

If after all of this you still get sick, chances are that bed rest, lots of fluids, ibuprofen or acetaminophen, and a little bit of chicken soup to soothe a sore throat will be enough to get you back on your feet. Steer clear of the ER unless you are very sick, and those in a high-risk group for dangerous flu complications (young children, pregnant women and the elderly, for example) or people who are worried about their illness should call their health care provider for advice. Make sure you have been fever-free (without the help of fever-reducing medicines) for 24 hours before going back to school or work.

January, as we mentioned, is the month of fear. We say that because a search for the word “flu” brings up headlines such as “He was 21 and fit. He tried to push through the flu – and it killed him” (Washington Post) and “Defending against this year’s deadly flu: Five things to know” (PBS). These and other news stories on flu-related deaths are worthy of coverage; flu kills thousands of people in the United States every year. That said, it’s important not to let the fear get the best of you. All anyone can do is make smart decisions about avoidance and treatment, and fate will handle the rest.

In the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt to have a good book and a binge-worthy show at the ready should H3N2 come knocking.