It’s one of the worst flu seasons to date. Individuals experiencing flu-like symptoms are encouraged to see their family physician first before going to an emergency room.

This year’s flu season has been especially challenging, not only in this country but worldwide. Preventive actions to stay healthy can help avoid spreading the virus to others.

This year, the flu has surpassed the last 10 to 15 years as one of the worst, according to Adrian Cotton, MD, chief of medical operations at Loma Linda University Health. Here in the United States, the virus began in mid-October on the East Coast and quickly spread to the West Coast by the end of the year. It has plagued many emergency rooms in California, with Loma Linda University Health seeing an extra 60 patients a day. 

With a steady rise in the flu virus, it’s critical for patients to discern between the flu and a common cold to avoid further health complications. “Going to an emergency room for a cold just puts patients at risk for catching influenza,” Cotton says.

The best ways to prevent the flu are:

  1. Get a vaccination
  2. Wash hands often
  3. Avoid contact with others
  4. Cover your mouth before you cough
  5. If possible, stay out of the emergency room, which is open to additional germs and illnesses.

Patients are encouraged to contact their primary physician first to address cold and flu-like symptoms. If a primary physician is unable to help, then patients can consider going to an emergency room, says Cotton.

Cotton recommends a child should only visit the emergency room for the following reasons:

  • Bluish skin color
  • Dehydrated
  • Trouble breathing or chest pain
  • Not waking up or not interacting
  • Fever with a rash
  • Not eating
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but return with a fever or worse cough

Adults should only go to the emergency room for the following reasons:

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but return with a fever or worse cough

Individuals with a cold will often experience signs of a runny or stuffy nose, according to the CDC. A cold can be treated by over-the-counter medications and if necessary, treated by a family physician. Flu symptoms can be more life-threatening if not treated properly and quickly, Cotton says. Flu symptoms include muscle or body aches, fever or chills, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headaches and fatigue.

Children over six months and adults are encouraged to get a flu vaccination every year.

“More often than not, individuals pass the flu to others before they experience the symptoms themselves,” Cotton says.

The following individuals are at higher risk of developing the flu:

  • Adults over the age of 65
  • Children under the age of five
  • Women who are pregnant
  • Individuals with asthma
  • Individuals with chronic lung disease, heart disease or blood disorders

“The flu is a serious illness and it should be treated that way,” Cotton says. In the past, the flu has resulted in 12,000 to 56,000 deaths per year according to the Centers for Disease Control estimates.

Prevention is key to help reduce the spread of the flu, and it starts with a vaccination.

“There are really no good reasons not to get the vaccine unless you had a prior allergic reaction or have had a rare complication called Guillain-Barre,” Cotton says.

The more individuals who are vaccinated, the less chance that influenza will make you ill, the greater chance of reducing time out of work or school and spreading the virus among family members and co-workers.