Editor's Note: The statistics in this story have been changed to reflect updated information.
With the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) this week declaring it an epidemic, the flu continues to hit the country hard, with only a few regional areas escaping widespread infection.
Officials from the North Carolina Health and Human Services office reported that 54 people have died since flu season began in October. The CDC reported that, nationally, 26 children have died from the flu and 46 states are experiencing widespread flu activity.
State officials reported that 30 people in North Carolina died between Dec. 28 and January 3. The elderly have been most susceptible, as 3 out of 4 deaths in the state have been someone 65 or older.
About 95 percent of the cases are caused by the H3N2 strain of the virus, a strain that's known to cause more severe illnesses and deaths. Exacerbating the problem, this strain also mutated after this season's flu vaccine was created, making it a bad match to combat the disease.
Despite its 33 percent effective rate, the CDC and health professionals continue to encourage getting the flu shot because it can help bring down the severity of the illness. This is especially important, they say, for people over 65, children under 5, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems or other illnesses.
Winter is flu season, but it is also cold season. Unfortunately, the symptoms for both are fairly similar with minor differences and it may be hard to tell from which ailment you're suffering.
According to the CDC, the symptoms for the flu include,
- Fever (though, not everyone will have a fever)
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Body aches
- Sometimes diarrhea and vomiting
Similarly, symptoms of the common cold include,
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Sore throat
- Watery eyes
- Mild headache
- Mild body aches
Generally speaking, severity is one of the driving differences between the two. The flu will come on suddenly, bringing with it body aches and fatigue, whereas a cold will take a few days to creep up on you. Body aches, if you experience them, will be mild and although you might feel pretty miserable, you won't likely feel real fatigue. A fever is far more common with the flu than with the common cold.
Hospital emergency rooms tend to be hotbed for germs, so they should be avoided unless otherwise necessary. The CDC recommends seeking emergency treatment if a child, infant or adult is experiencing these warning signs:
- Fast breathing or trouble breathing
- Bluish skin color
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Not waking up or not interacting
- Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
- Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough
- Fever with a rash
In addition to the signs above, get medical help right away for any infant who has any of these signs:
- Being unable to eat
- Has trouble breathing
- Has no tears when crying
- Significantly fewer wet diapers than normal
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Sudden dizziness
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough
Unless a person is considered high risk or exhibiting the symptoms above, the CDC recommends staying home and avoiding other people until you've been without a fever for 24 hours. Those that are high risk, experiencing persistent symptoms, or are concerned about their health should contact a medical professional for advice before leaving their home.
It's important to remember that antibiotics won't help the flu or the common cold, as they are viruses and not bacterial infections. Flu antivirals are available, but colds are best treated with rest and over-the-counter medications for symptoms if necessary.
If you're unsure of what over-the-counter medication would be best for your condition, contact your doctor.