An active flu season is driving more patients to local emergency rooms and primary care offices for treatment, as Florida is one of 49 states now seeing widespread cases of influenza, according to the latest report  by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“We’re definitely seeing a higher prevalence of flu this year, in both adults and children,” said David Mishkin, M.D.,  an emergency medicine physician at Baptist Hospital of Miami . “In our area, it seems the outbreak started a few weeks ago, then ramped up during the holidays and has remained high since.”
Dr. Mishkin estimates the uptick in this year’s flu cases is about 10 to 20 percent higher than last flu season. Visits to emergency departments, particularly among adults older than 65 and pregnant women, are remaining well above levels observed during the last two flu seasons, according to the Florida Department of Health. Only about 30 percent of pregnant women have been vaccinated for this flu season, reports the CDC.
“In the emergency room, we’re seeing a lot of older patients from nursing homes who are at higher risk for pneumonia and other conditions, and we need to treat them more aggressively,” Dr. Mishkin said.
Local doctors’ offices are treating entire families stricken by the flu and flu-related illnesses, says Melissa Franco, D.O ., a family medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care  at Pinecrest.
“This year’s flu is spreading a lot more, the contagion rate seems higher,” she said. “Often, a child will get sick first, spread it to the parents, and the whole family ends up with the flu.”
Like the common cold, flu is a contagious viral infection of the respiratory tract. And because the virus spreads by respiratory transmission, all it takes is a sneeze or a cough to spread the virus, Dr. Mishkin said.
Infographic by Irina de Souza
Being vaccinated against the flu is vital to prevent its spread, urge health officials.
“The flu shot remains the best way to prevent getting the flu,” Dr. Franco said. “Flu season can go well into the spring, and it’s never too late to get vaccinated.”
Even when vaccinated and taking other precautions against the flu, some people who get influenza may get sicker than others. These “high risk” patients include adults 65 years of age and older, pregnant women and people with certain chronic medical conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease and weakened immune systems. Flu-related complications have caused more than 4,000 adults and children to be hospitalized nationwide since this year’s flu season began in October.
“A lot of the patients we are seeing in the emergency room have not been vaccinated,” Dr. Mishkin said. Everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu vaccine, according to CDC guidelines.
(See infographic, right, for more tips on How to Stay Healthy During Flu Season)
Symptoms of this year’s flu virus are similar to other years, says Dr. Mishkin, with most patients describing a sudden onset of fever, head and body aches, sore throat and cough. While many flu symptoms can be similar to those of a cold, Dr. Mishkin points out the difference.
“People who have the flu will come to us with symptoms that are more severe than the common cold,” he said. “The flu is abrupt, coming on suddenly. Most people can pinpoint to within a couple of hours when they started feeling it.”
Flu in Children
Children younger than 5, and especially children younger than 2 years old, also are at high-risk for complications due to the flu. So far this flu season, 13 children (younger than 18) across the country have died due to influenza-associated illness, the CDC reports. A flu vaccine can significantly reduce a child’s risk of dying from influenza, according to research published last year in Pediatrics .
Dr. Mishkin encourages parents to discuss the flu early with a pediatrician or other doctor so they know what to expect should their child become ill.
“Flu treatment for children is usually more conservative,” he said. “And because they can be at high-risk, it’s best that very young children be evaluated in person.”
Technology is providing doctors with new ways to treat patients with flu, explains Dr. Mishkin, who also serves as medical director of Baptist Health South Florida’s Care On Demand , a service that provides immediate access to a Board-certified physician online using a smart phone or computer.
“Care On Demand is a very good screening tool for illnesses like the flu,” he said. “It allows us to talk to patients about their condition, treat them promptly and keep them at home where they need to rest and recover.”
The average flu patient, who is otherwise healthy and not a high risk, usually responds well to treatment which consists of rest, hydration and acetaminophen for fever and pain, Dr. Mishkin says. Most people feel better within two-to-five days, sometimes a week.
“Don’t push yourself, stay in bed to rest and don’t over exert,” he said.
Care On Demand for the Flu
Through February 28, 2018, receive 50 percent off a Baptist Health Care On Demand visit. Click here  to get the special coupon code. Physicians are available online 24 hours a day, and no appointment is necessary.