Tualatin physician discusses symptoms, risks — and why prevention is the best cure

HarperFlu season began Nov. 26, 2013, according to Legacy Meridian Park Medical Center.

That’s when the first of 329 people visited the hospital with concerns they were suffering from this year’s brand of the H1N1 virus.

Fifty-eight of them were, although the majority of flu cases don’t merit a visit to the doctor.

Sean Harper, a physician with the Legacy Medical Group - Tualatin, explains that healthy people struck down by the flu simply need to ride it out. But infants and young children, some elderly sufferers, and certain groups are more at risk, including those with lung disease, asthma, heart disease and other chronic illnesses.

If you are not in one of those high-risk groups, do not suffer a persistently high fever, do not have trouble breathing and do not appear to be suffering an aggressive form of the illness, Harper says, unfortunately, you’ve just got to ride it out.

But there are two definite signs you should seek immediate attention: if you have trouble breathing, or if you have a persistently high fever.

It’s a popular misconception that the flu must always be accompanied by a stomach illness, and symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea, Harper explains.

“It’s actually a respiratory illness, and it affects sinuses, the nose,” he explains, adding that body aches, fevers, chills, a sore throat, cough and headaches are some of the usual suspects that can point to the flu.

Each year, the flu differs in severity and target demographic. Although children ages 4 and younger and adults 65 and older are generally considered the most vulnerable populations, this year’s pH1N1 virus, a strain of Influenza A, is disproportionately impacting young and middle-aged adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

“It’s hitting people in the area pretty hard,” Harper says.

Particularly severe cases of the flu can be treated in a clinic setting, Harper says, but widespread use of antiviral medications is risky, as viruses can become resistant and increasingly difficult to treat.

“We try to minimize the amount of overtreatment,” Harper says. “We don’t have a whole lot of medications (for the flu), and we want the ones we do have to work.”

Prevention is key, he says, pointing out that two-thirds of the patients admitted to Legacy Meridian Park for flu treatment had not received their seasonal flu vaccines.

“You can get a flu shot and still get sick from the flu, but if you’re not immunized, you tend to have harsher symptoms,” Harper says. “It’s like if you wear a seatbelt, you’re less likely to get injured in a car accident.”

The CDC recommends everyone 6 months of age and older get a flu vaccine, with rare exceptions.

Even those who claim robust health and little to no history of getting sick should get the flu shot, Harper says, in the interest of herd immunity.

“If we immunize everyone in the herd, then the weak people in the herd have greater protection,” he explains. “The chance of that newborn getting sick is less, because there’s less of a chance of the flu coming into that house.”

“I try to give patients a guilt trip, unfortunately,” he laughs.

The flu vaccine changes each year, but typically guards against three strains of the flu determined most likely to hit that year. Because the vaccine addresses only a fraction of flu strains circulating, it is possible to still get sick, or to get sick more than once in a season.

“If patients have influenza, I tell them, ‘As soon as you start feeling better, let’s bring you in and get that shot,’” Harper says.

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