Every year, the flu season brings a flurry of activity and concern. Nurses must stay abreast of the latest flu facts, from the emergence of new strains to changing guidelines for the most effective treatment. Here's what you should know.
How Widespread Are Flu Illnesses?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in an average year:
- The flu virus infects 5-20% of the U.S. population.
- More than 200,000 people are hospitalized for related complications.
- There are as many as 79,000 flu-associated deaths.
The 2017-2018 flu season was particularly harsh, leading to higher rates of hospitalizations. During that timeframe, the CDC reported:
- 45 million patients with symptomatic illness
- Approximately 808,000 resulting hospitalizations
- More than 61,000 deaths
What Changes Each Flu Season?
Besides variations in the number of people affected by the flu each year, several other changes can also occur as the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) update guidelines and recommendations.
Updated vaccines. Vaccines are updated annually to match the viruses that are likely to be circulating. While there are generally four types of influenza — A, B, C and D — types A and B are the most prevalent.
For the 2019-2020 season, the following changes were made:
- Only type A flu vaccine components were updated.
- All regular-dose flu shots and recombinant vaccines are now quadrivalent instead of trivalent. This provides broader coverage as it protects against four different influenza viruses as opposed to just three.
- The vaccine viruses used to produce cell-grown flu vaccines are no longer grown in eggs. The CDC will use cells as a growth medium, creating an allergy-friendly flu vaccine option for patients with egg allergies.
Altered recommended age guidelines. As new influenza vaccines are produced and introduced into the market, the recommended age guidelines may shift. For example, the Afluria Quadrivalent vaccine is now approved for children six months of age and older. The vaccine was previously only authorized for adults 18 years and older.
Altered dose guidelines. Dosing changes are important to be aware of also. In January 2019, the FDA announced a change in dosing guidelines for the Fluzone Quadrivalent vaccine. Children ages six months through 35 months can now receive one or two doses of 0.25 milliliters each, with two doses spaced at least a month apart.
What Preventive Strategies Should Nurses Use?
Nurses play an important role in caring for patients with flu-related symptoms. Even more critical is the work nurses do in preventing the spread of the virus and the education they provide to patients about vaccinations and self-care.
Strategies to prevent the spread of influenza include:
Vaccinations. The flu shot is one of the most effective ways to prevent influenza. Currently, the CDC recommends flu vaccinations for all healthcare employees, patients ages six months and older, and residents of long-term care facilities. Take the time to discuss the benefits and risks of the flu shot with your patients and encourage them to share any concerns. Unless contraindicated, you should also receive the flu shot annually. It is usually offered for free by healthcare employers.
Hand hygiene. The flu virus spreads via droplets that go airborne when infected persons talk, sneeze or cough. These droplets land on nearby surfaces and are sometimes inhaled by others. Practicing hand hygiene is imperative. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a reasonable option when access to soap and water is limited. Discuss the importance of frequent handwashing with patients, caregivers and visitors.
Additional precautions. There are plenty of additional ways nurses can discourage the spread of the flu virus through their own actions and those of patients:
- Stay home and avoid contact with the public, if possible, until you have been fever-free for 24 hours without the use of medication.
- Disinfect commonly touched surfaces often (cell phones, door handles, computer keyboards, etc.).
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
Nurses encounter and care for patients with flulike symptoms regularly, so it is wise to understand how the virus spreads and what the current treatment guidelines are. By staying up to date on the latest information, you can better protect yourself, your patients and the community at large.
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