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As Flu Season Eases Up, Doctors Still Urge Prevention

Flu levels in the United States have peaked and are on the decline, according to the latest report [1] issued Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

People experiencing influenza-like illness made up 5 percent of visits to doctors in week eight of this year’s flu season, down from 6.4 percent in week seven. The peak was in early February when the rate was 7.4 percent, the CDC says.

Despite the decline, doctors and health officials continue to encourage precaution and prevention – and not just during the typical flu season [2] – but year round.

“This year’s flu has spread a lot more, the contagion rate seems higher,” said Melissa Franco, D.O [3]., a family medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care [4] at Pinecrest, who’s been busy treating entire families stricken by the flu and flu-related illnesses. “Often, a child will get sick first, spread it to the parents, and the whole family ends up with the flu.”

Airborne Threat: Flu May Be Spread By Just Breathing, Study Finds

Until now, most experts dealing with infectious diseases have said the flu virus spreads mainly by droplets formed when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

A recent study, however, provides new evidence that coughs and sneezes may not be necessary to fill the air with droplets of the flu virus [5]. The study [6] funded by the CDC and the National Institutes of Health, shows that the flu’s potentially expanded airborne quality means the virus can spread more easily than previously thought.

‘Tiny Droplets’ Stay in the Air

“People with flu generate infectious aerosols (tiny droplets that stay suspended in the air for a long time) even when they are not coughing, and especially during the first days of illness,” explained Donald Milton, M.D., professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and the study’s lead researcher, in a news release. “So when someone is coming down with influenza, they should go home and not remain in the workplace and infect others.”

Dr. Milton and his research team captured and examined samples of exhaled breath from 142 people with confirmed cases of influenza during natural breathing, prompted speech, spontaneous coughing, and sneezing. The team then assessed the infectivity, or the ability of a pathogen to establish an infection, from the captured influenza aerosols. The analysis showed that a significant number of patients shed infectious particles that can be transmitted through the air — without coughing or sneezing.

The study’s finding seems logical, says Sergio Segarra, M.D. [7], chief medical officer at Baptist Hospital of Miami [8] and an emergency physician, because of how easily the flu can spread based on previous studies.

People with the flu can spread it to others up to about six feet away, usually from coughs or sneezes, according to current guidelines from the CDC. Most healthy adults are able to infect other people beginning one day before symptoms develop, and up to five to seven days after becoming sick.

“As with any study, you need other studies to verify its findings,” says Dr. Segarra. “But when you are looking at flu virus droplets that are so small — that spreading the virus by breathing in close proximity would be logical. That, in addition to the virus living up to 24 hours on surfaces, makes it that much worse.”

Like the rest of the United States, South Florida hospitals have been swamped with flu cases this year, says Dr. Segarra. The flu season usually peaks around February.

“We’ve seen the flu much earlier and we’re seeing a lot more cases,” says Dr. Segarra. “If I was travelling on an airplane, I would wear a mask, and I’ve had the vaccine. I would wear it and bring hand sanitizers with me.”

Flu Vaccine for Prevention

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.”

David Mishkin, M.D., [9] an emergency medicine physician at Baptist Hospital of Miami [8] and medical director of Baptist Health South Florida’s Care On Demand [10] service, agrees.

“A lot of the patients we are seeing in the emergency room have not been vaccinated,” Dr. Mishkin said. Everyone 6 months of age [11] and older should get a flu vaccine, according to CDC guidelines.