The Centers for Disease Control is urging doctors to prescribe antiviral medications to high-risk patients suspected of having the flu, even without a positive test. When given within 48 hours of symptoms appearing, antivirals like Tamiflu or Relenza can ease symptoms, shorten illness, and prevent serious complications.
Clinicians are not prescribing antiviral medications as often as in previous years, even though the 2013 flu season is causing more hospitalizations and deaths according to government figures. Complications from this year’s predominant flu strain are especially high among the elderly, causing half of hospitalizations and 90% of deaths so far.
With a sharp increase in both hospitalizations and deaths in the 2nd week of January, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a physician advisory urging use of antivirals for more people–especially those at high risk–as soon as flu symptoms appear.
“When given promptly, they work,” CDC Director Thomas Frieden, MD, told a Jan. 18th press briefing. “They can reduce symptoms, shorten the duration of illness, and prevent serious complications including hospitalization and death.”
Frieden also advised clinicians not to wait for test results or a positive ‘rapid flu test’ when probably flu appears in people at high risk for complications: anyone over age 65 or under age 2, or having any ongoing serious illness (including cancer survivors no longer in treatment).
Only halfway through the flu season
The number of influenza-related hospitalizations and deaths will rise in the coming weeks even as the national average of new cases begins to slow, Frieden warned, partly because there is a lag time between when flu hits and when complications like pneumonia appear.
And even though flu rates are leveling out in much of the east and south, the outbreak is just beginning in California, Arizona, Hawaii, and Nevada. “Folks out West, you still have most of the flu season yet to come,” Frieden said.
What this means for you:
- Experts are still strongly recommending that anyone over 2 years old should get a flu shot for protection—of you and others—over the next several months.
- Even if you got vaccinated, you can still get a strain of influenza.
- If you begin to have flu symptoms and are “high-risk” or have contact with high-risk people, you should get antiviral medication with 48 hours. (High risk includes cancer survivors, even if you’re no longer in treatment. Even if it’s later than 2 days, you might still benefit, so call your doctor.)
- Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, body aches.
- You are contagious to anyone within 6 feet until you have been without a fever for 24 hours. Stay home.