sneezing father and daughter

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The flu season started earlier than usual this year, and most states are reporting continued and widespread outbreaks. Here are some commonly asked questions answered by a Johns Hopkins infectious disease specialist.

Q. Is it true that the flu season is turning out to be more severe than expected this year?
A. The flu season started off earlier and stronger than in several previous years, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says state-by-state reports of flu cases, hospitalizations and deaths are elevated. But it is still too early to tell if there will be more flu cases than is typical in the United States this flu season, which runs from October until May. That said, influenza is widespread in most states, so everyone should take precautions to avoid getting the flu.

Q. If people become sick with flu symptoms, should they go to an emergency room?
A. The flu can make you feel pretty lousy, but the best thing to do is first consult your personal doctor or health care provider. If you don’t have one, visit a community health clinic. Your personal health care provider is best able to determine, based on your symptoms, age and medical history, whether you need specialized care in an emergency department or hospital setting. Emergency departments are primarily set up to address urgent and critical medical issues.

Q. The flu vaccine available this year isn’t very effective. Why?
A.
Flu vaccines are developed in advance to protect against several strains of flu virus that epidemiologists who track worldwide flu virus outbreaks do their best to predict. Unfortunately, the strain infecting most people this season — known as H3N2 — mutated, something viruses often do. As a result, the vaccine available this season isn’t as effective as hoped in protecting against the H3N2 strain.

Q. Does that mean the vaccine is useless? Should people still get it?
A. The vaccine still has significant value. Definitely ask your doctor or health care provider for a flu shot, because even this late in the season, it may still offer some protection or moderate the flu if you get it. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months or older get a flu shot every year because it is an effective way of boosting the immune system to fight circulating strains of flu virus. In addition, by protecting yourself, you may also help protect others who could be exposed if you don’t get a flu shot and come down with the flu.

Q. Other than a flu shot, what other steps can we take to keep from getting the flu?
A.Yes. Wash hands often or use alcohol-based hand gel, especially after shaking others’ hands or being around someone who has cold or flulike symptoms, such as high fever, cough and fatigue.

Q. Should people who have the flu take Tamiflu?
A.
Antiviral drugs like Tamiflu are best and typically prescribed for those most at risk for serious flu complications, including the young, elderly, or those with other serious health conditions or compromised immune systems. Antivirals are only available by prescription and can’t be purchased over the counter. No one should take an antiviral unless a doctor specifically prescribes it. Most otherwise-healthy people can beat the flu by staying home and resting in bed, taking medicines to reduce fever and drinking plenty of water or other clear liquids to stay hydrated.

Q. What can health care workers do to keep themselves and patients healthy in flu season?
A. First and foremost, health care workers who have direct patient contact should get the flu vaccination. They also should practice good hand hygiene with frequent hand-washing or the application of sanitizing hand gel. Health care workers who feel sick with cold and flu symptoms should stay home and rest to avoid exposing patients to a flu or cold virus.

Lisa Maragakis, M.D., is an infectious disease expert and director of the Department of Hospital Epidemiology and Infection Control at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.

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end-of-year-donations nurse holding heart

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‘Tis the season for giving

As vice president of development for the Howard Hospital Foundation (HHF), I am fortunate to get to witness firsthand the benefits of our community’s charitable donations to Howard County General Hospital.

From patients who have honored their caregiver with a donation; to the baker who hosted a cupcake event with Santa with proceeds benefiting the hospital; to a local neighbor who for the past two years has mailed a check for $25 every month to support his local hospital; to the child who donated new toys to the pediatric department; to the widow who memorialized the life of her husband with a gift; to the man who provided a $5 million donation to recognize the care his wife had received; and to the many this year who have included the hospital in their estate plans – we thank you all!.

It does not matter how big or small your donation may be, each gift is important to providing quality care and comfort to those served by HCGH. Whether you are donating as an individual, business or organization – you are helping us develop vital new programs and purchase state-of-the-art equipment that we need to continually improve patient care.

As you make your plans for your end-of-year donations, I ask that you please keep the hospital in mind. Howard County General Hospital relies on the philanthropic support of its community. Additionally, your end of the year generosity also may provide you with tax benefits.

On behalf of the Howard Hospital Foundation and Howard County General Hospital, I thank each of you for all of your generosity year round. Warm wishes to you and your family during this holiday season.

Sandy Harriman is the vice president of development of the Howard Hospital Foundation, the fundraising arm of Howard County General Hospital.

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Diagnosis and treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

As Daylight Saving Time ended this past weekend, we experienced the “fall back,” shortening our hours of sunlight during the day. During this time of diminished daylight, some people suffer from what is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Learn more about SAD in the slideshow below. If you think you may be experiencing SAD symptoms, contact your primary care physician.

 

  • snowy landscape
    According to a Johns Hopkins study, SAD is a “mood disorder characterized by depression related to a certain season of the year – especially winter.” SAD is known to be caused by seasonal variations of light or decreased sunlight. [© Michal Bednarek | Dreamstime.com]

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© Madartists | Dreamstime.com

With all the news about infectious diseases, people may get the idea that the flu isn’t all that serious; but we need to remember that it can be a very dangerous—even fatal—illness, especially to the very young, the very old and the immune-compromised. It descends upon our local communities every year, causing a great deal of sickness and sometimes death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, “Over a period of 31 seasons between 1976 and 2007, estimates of flu-associated deaths in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people. During a regular flu season, about 90 percent of deaths occur in people 65 years and older.” But even healthy people can get very sick from the flu and spread it to others.

How should I prepare for the flu?
As with most illness, prevention is the best defense and the best form of prevention is the annual flu vaccine. The CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone 6 months of age and older.

Influenza can be spread even before you have symptoms. Therefore, practicing good flu etiquette is always encouraged:

  • wash your hands often
  • try to stay away from people who are sick
  • stay home if you are sick
  • cover your cough with tissue or the inside of your elbow.

Is there any treatment for the flu?
If you get the flu, there are antiviral drugs that can make your symptoms milder and make you feel better sooner. They can also prevent serious flu-related complications, like pneumonia. However, sometimes a flu virus has changed in a way that makes antiviral drugs less effective, and the CDC conducts studies to determine which strains are becoming resistant. (Click for more information about antiviral drugs.)

What should I do if I get the flu?
If your illness is mild, stay home and avoid contact with other people. You should stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone. However, if you have symptoms and are in a high-risk group, contact your doctor. See People at High Risk of Developing Flu–Related Complications. Your doctor may prescribe an antiviral drug.

What is the difference between the common cold and the flu?
In general, the flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness and dry cough are more common and intense. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections or hospitalizations. Special tests done within the first few days of illness can tell if a person has the flu.

When should I get the flu vaccine?
The flu season peak activity most commonly hits in the U.S. between December and February, however it can begin as early as October and continue until May. Since it takes about two weeks to develop antibodies after vaccination, it is a good idea to get vaccinated soon after the vaccine becomes available, usually in October, to ensure you are protected before the flu season starts.

Where can I get the flu vaccine?
Flu vaccines are offered at locations throughout the community: doctors’ offices, clinics, health departments, pharmacies, college health centers, employers and even some schools. Even if you don’t have a regular doctor or nurse, you can find a vaccination location by visiting the HealthMap Vaccine Finder.

How long does the flu vaccine protect from the flu?
Studies over several years show that the body’s immunity to influenza viruses (acquired through natural infection or by vaccination) declines over time. Older people and those with weakened immune systems might not generate the same amount of antibodies after vaccination, so it’s important to get a vaccine every season.

Can the vaccine provide protection even if the vaccine is not a “good” match?
Even if the virus and vaccine are not a “good match,” getting the vaccine can lessen the severity of your illness. Antibodies made in response to vaccination with one flu virus can sometimes provide protection against different but related viruses, although sometimes with reduced effectiveness.

Myths about the flu and flu vaccine:

  • You can get the flu from the flu vaccine.
    No, you cannot contract the flu from either the flu shot or the nasal spray, although you might have a mild fever, runny nose or sore arm that lasts only for a day or two.
  • The flu vaccine is more dangerous than the flu.
    No. Any flu infection can carry a risk of serious complications, hospitalization or death, even among otherwise healthy children and adults. Getting vaccinated is a much safer choice than risking illness.
  • Getting vaccinated twice provides more immunity.
    No. Studies have not shown any benefits for adults receiving more than one dose during an influenza season. Except for some children, only one dose is recommended.

Are there special concerns for vaccinating children?
Children between 6 months and 8 years may need two doses of flu vaccine to be fully protected. Your child’s health care professional can tell you whether your child needs two doses. Visit Children, the Flu, and the Flu Vaccine for more information.

Starting with this season, the CDC recommends use of the nasal spray vaccine (LAIV) for healthy children 2 through 8 years, because recent studies suggest that nasal spray is more effective than the flu shot for younger children. However, if the nasal spray vaccine is not immediately available and the flu shot is, your child should get the flu shot. Don’t delay vaccination to find the nasal spray flu vaccine. Visit Nasal Spray Flu Vaccine in Children 2 through 8 Years Old or the 2014-2015 MMWR Influenza Vaccine Recommendations. Children younger than 6 months are at higher risk of serious flu complications, but are too young to get a flu vaccine. If you live with or care for an infant younger than 6 months of age, you should get a flu vaccine to help protect them from flu. See Advice for Caregivers of Young Children for more information.

Emergency Warning Signs
Go to the Emergency Department if a child experiences the following symptoms:

  • Fast or difficult breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Not taking fluids
  • Not waking up
  • Fever with rash
  • Symptoms that improve but return with fever and worse cough.

For adults emergency signs include:

  • Difficult breathing and shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness or confusion
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Symptoms that lessen but return with fever and worse cough.

The bottom line is the flu vaccine is your best defense. More information about influenza vaccines is available at Preventing Seasonal Flu with Vaccination.


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sick teddy bear

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The rare respiratory virus that has sickened hundreds of kids across the Midwest has made its way to the East Coast, its arrival in Maryland was confirmed this past Wednesday (Sept. 24). Reports of severe illness have fueled anxiety among parents and caregivers, but infectious disease specialists at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center expect that most children who get the bug should recover swiftly without lingering after-effects.

What is Enterovirus D68?
Enterovirus D68 belongs to a family of nearly 100 viruses that cause a wide range of symptoms, infecting millions of people around the world each year. First identified in the 1960s, Enterovirus D68 is not a new virus. It affects predominantly children and teens and causes mild to moderate upper respiratory infections. Some people may also develop more serious infections of the lungs. The virus is contained in airway and mouth secretions, such as saliva, spit and nasal mucus, and is spread in much the same way as the common cold and the flu viruses — by touching contaminated surfaces, coughing and sneezing.

How dangerous is it?
In most healthy children, the virus will cause brief and self-limiting illness that resembles a bad case of the common cold, but it could lead to more severe disease and respiratory distress, particularly in those with underlying chronic conditions such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell disease, heart disease or compromised immune function.

How is it treated?
There is no specific treatment for this virus. Children should drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration and rest until fully recovered. Antibiotics used to treat bacterial infections will NOT work against this or any other virus. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen, can help reduce fever, pains and aches. Aspirin should not be given to children.

What can I do to reduce the risk of infection?
Follow common sense hygiene etiquette. The single most effective way to reduce the risk of infection is to wash hands frequently and avoid touching your face. Sneeze and cough into your sleeve rather than in the palm of your hand. Keep home children with cough and fever to avoid spreading the virus to others. Make sure that infected family members use separate hand and facial towels and do not share cups, glasses or utensils.

When should I take my child to the ER?
Most children who get the virus will do fine and do not require emergency care or hospitalization. A small number of children may go on to develop more serious disease and require urgent medical attention or emergency treatment.

One or more of the following warrants a trip to your pediatrician’s office or to the ER:
• Struggling to breathe, apparent respiratory distress
• Severe, prolonged vomiting
• Fever over 103 degrees that does not break in 48 hours
• Lethargy

Dr. Julia McMillan is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at The Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. The center offers one of the most comprehensive pediatric medical programs in the country, with more than 92,000 patient visits and nearly 9,000 admissions each year. Johns Hopkins Children Center is consistently ranked among the top children’s hospitals in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

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jess bookEver since I started using Pinterest regularly, Facebook has kind of lost its shine for me. There are so many neat things about the former that the latter just cannot offer. Though over ten million people use Pinterest these days, there’s always still a chance you may be new to it.

Pinterest is a pinboard-style photo-sharing website that lets users to create and keep track of theme-based image collections such as events, interests, and hobbies. Obviously, Pinterest isn’t going to dramatically change your life. What it can do, though, is help it inspire it, whether it’s with your diet, the make-up you want to use, or ways to keep your mood going strong and stress-free.

It’s easy to sign up for a Pinterest account, but if you don’t want to or simply feel you can’t be bothered with an account, you can use the search box on Pinterest to find what you want. Bypassing account login (which normally is how you first are able to use the “search” box) you can use Pinterest by doing a Pinterest search through Google. Once you’re in that way, you can search Pinterest as long as your heart desires.

“[Pinterest] is fascinating,” said Brendan Gallagher of Digitas Health. “It’s social commerce cleverly disguised as an aspirational visual scrapbook.” Aspirational sounds about right. There are so many great things to be discovered on this often surprisingly productive social networking site.

jess pcLet’s say you’re interested in dental health and want to motivate yourself or your family to get better at brushing. You can go here: Good Food Vs. Bad Food (for your teeth) | How to Improve Dental Health | Dental Health Info Graphics

If you’re determined to eat better than you do, check out great superfoods ideas and other healthy lifestyle tips here: Better Health Info Graphics | Antioxidants

If you love coffee, but wonder whether it’s doing you more harm than good, Pinterest has something for that, too: Medical Benefits of Being Addicted to Coffee

Are you a woman worried about heart disease? Are you a man who’s fallen behind on pertinent health news? What’s up with migraines? By the way, when was your last physical exam?

Okay. I got excited there! I think it’s clear that you can search for healthy inspiration or explore your other curiosities, like proper dining etiquette, job interviewing skills, removing permanent marker stains from anything, or creating easy outfit access in the morning (especially if you have children who always seem to be rushing around right before the school bus arrives). However, a note of caution: while Pinterest is for everyone, what’s pinned isn’t always trustworthy intel. Just like anything else you might find online, be sure to consult medical professionals before trying any kind of diet or exercise plan.

So, if you want to become a Pinterest person, here are some good rules to follow to make it more worthwhile. Happy (and healthy) pinning!

Angie Engles has been with the Howard County Library System for 17 years, 14 of which were at the Savage Branch. She currently works at the Central Branch primarily in the Fiction and Audio-visual departments. Her interests include music, books, and old movies.


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