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Flu virus hits hard

On Jan. 7, four Squirt-level hockey parents were keeping score, announcing and manning the penalty boxes behind the Plexiglas sheets at Northwoods Credit Union Arena. Within days, all four were sick and at least one was diagnosed with Type A influenza, or the flu.

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“Everyone got sick,” said Jamie Psyck, the only parent to get an official diagnosis of the flu.

For Psyck, it started with a sore throat on Thursday morning. By about 8 p.m., he was starting to feel pretty rough and went to bed. Things went from bad to worse, as chills, body and joint aches set in, and his lungs started sending out distress signals from all the congestion. Coughing made him feel like his “lung was going to rip.” A low grade fever climbed to as high as 104 degrees at one point.

Psyck went to the doctor.

“I wasn’t going to get checked out,” Psyck said. “But Dr. Luehr actually thanked me for coming in. He says, ‘You know, if you wouldn’t have come in, it would have been terrible.’”

The influenza season started early (in October) in Minnesota this year, but seems to be reaching a peak now, according to Dr. Pete Olsen, a full-time emergency room doctor at Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet who gets a weekly update on flu statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). He noted that influenza is considered widespread in Minnesota and 34 other states, which means flu activity has been identified in more than 50 percent of the geographical area of those states.

It’s a nasty flu season, said Olsen, who had seen three patients on Tuesday alone, one of them a woman who normally gets a flu shot every year … except this one.

He noted that a 14-year-old girl from the Twin Cities area died of complications from influenza last week, the second otherwise healthy teenager killed by the disease in Minnesota in a span of 10 days, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

“Fourteen-year-old girls are usually pretty healthy,” Olsen said. “That tells you this is a very serious flu season.”

During most flu seasons, it is usually the very young (under age 5) or very old or ill people who are most affected by the flu. This season, according to the CDC, a large number of young- to middle-aged adults is being affected — such as Psyck and his fellow hockey parents — by the virus. The most widespread form of flu virus is the H1N1 virus, which also affected the same population group during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. H1N1 viruses have continued to circulate among people since that time, but this is the first season that the virus has circulated at high levels since the pandemic.

Flu vaccination, hand washing frequently and — if you think you have the flu — wearing a mask or staying home (or both) are all excellent ways to prevent the spread of influenza, Olsen said, noting that flu is spread by respiratory droplets.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Health urged all Minnesotans to get flu shots to protect them from the virus, which has killed five people and hospitalized at least 600 in the state since October.

Olsen strongly advocates getting vaccinated every year, rattling off a list of things that would be prevented if everyone got a flu shot:

“It would prevent 6.6 million people from becoming ill with the flu each year, 2 million doctor visits and at least 79,000 hospitalizations,” Olsen said.

According to the CDC, influenza A (H3N2), 2009 influenza A (H1N1) and influenza B viruses have all been identified in the U.S. this season.

Even those who get the flu should get a flu shot as soon as they’re healthy, Olsen said, because there is more than one strain of influenza contained in the shot. This year’s vaccine, he added, has been quite effective on the two type A strains, although not quite as effective on the B strain.

“Basically, we create a vaccine to treat a flu from six months ago,” he said, explaining that scientists begin culturing the vaccine based on the viruses circulating six months before in countries like China. “But the virus shifts over time.”

Olsen said he’s been seeing a fairly even split of influenza A and influenza B infections.

He recommends people get vaccinated as soon as possible, because it takes close to 14 days for the vaccine to be fully effective.

For those who didn’t get a shot and are feeling symptoms of the flu, there is hope. An antiviral medicine by the trade name of Tamiflu can shorten the duration of the flu and lessen the severity of symptoms. A person must go to the doctor and be diagnosed with the flu first, however. Olsen said the antiviral medicine can also be prescribed at places such as nursing homes, to help prevent the flu.

People respond best if they start taking Tamiflu within 48 to 72 hours of contracting the flu, Olsen said, adding that doctors can use their own judgment if a person has been sick longer than that.

“Sometimes, if we feel the flu is very severe, doctors will still treat [with Tamiflu],” he said. “We want to do everything we can to help someone.”

“Dr. Luehr told me if you’re diagnosed [quickly enough], he can prescribe Tamiflu,” a relatively healthy Psyck said Tuesday at another Squirt hockey game. “If I didn’t get Tamiflu, I’d still be in bed.”

What is influenza (flu)?

Influenza is a contagious respiratory disease. It is not the same as the “stomach flu.” Flu is caused by a virus that attacks the nose, throat, and lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness and at times can lead to death.

What are the symptoms of flu?

Influenza symptoms come on quickly in the form of fever, cough, sore throat, headache, extreme tiredness, stuffed-up nose and body aches. These symptoms can be severe and put you in bed for several days.

What can you do to protect yourself and others?

+ Get vaccinated.

+ Avoid being exposed to others who are sick with a flu-like illness.

+ Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, or cough or sneeze into your sleeve.

+ Clean your hands often — with soap and water, or a hand sanitizer.

+ Take special care to protect infants. Try not to expose them to large crowds when flu is in your community, and avoid close contact between the baby and family members who may be sick.

+ Do not share drinking cups and straws.

+ Clean commonly touched surfaces often (door knobs, refrigerator handles, phones, water faucets).

What if you think you have the flu?

- Stay home if you are ill.

- Avoid contact with others.

- Rest and drink lots of fluids.

- If you are in a high-risk group, call your health care provider for advice.

- Go to the doctor or the emergency room if you are having these symptoms:  

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 return with worse fever and cough

~ Courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Health