BILLINGS — People who contract the flu are contagious for 24 hours before they start feeling symptoms, and that's why RiverStone Health staff say it's important to prevent the flu's spread to protect vulnerable infants and the elderly.
"It’s not too late for people to get vaccinated," said Kim Bailey, RiverStone Health's communicable disease program manager Wednesday.
Historically, Montana sees its peak number of flu cases in February and March. RiverStone reported 305 flu cases in Yellowstone County this season, which started last fall. About half of those cases were reported in the first two weeks of this year.
The worst of the flu season is likely yet to come, Bailey said.
"You never really know for sure how it’s going to pan out. This year it’s been different,” Bailey said.
This season, doctors are seeing the influenza B strain circulating early in the season. Usually, influenza A appears first, followed by influenza B.
Infants aged zero to five months cannot get the flu vaccination and are more vulnerable to contracting the disease.
"Unfortunately, some people who are contagious with the flu don’t realize it. They could be around those babies that can’t be immunized and transmit it to them. They are very vulnerable, and if they get the flu they get very sick. The outcome can be disastrous at times," Bailey said.
If a majority of the community is vaccinated against the flu, there is less risk that infants and elderly will contract the disease, she said.
For people around 65, a high dose vaccine is specifically made for them. Sometimes, older people won't get the immune response that protects them from the flu.
"Now, there’s high dose flu vaccine for seniors. That helps with them getting a better immune response. Still, some seniors just can’t get protection from the vaccine, so they’re still vulnerable. And the only way to protect those people, is for the people around them to not be sick and not get sick, and not transmit it to those people,” Bailey said.
Even if you have already come down with the flu this season, Bailey said a flu shot will still offer protection.
"If they’ve already had the flu, they should be immunized because we don’t know when other strains will start to circulate. And it could protect against the strains that person may have already had," Bailey said.
Flu symptoms like headache, fever, body aches and labored breathing can come on fast. If you get to the doctor quickly, they can give you medications to hopefully quicken recovery.
"If you think you have the flu, you don’t want to wait too long because we can give you antivirals. They can really decrease the length of the illness and some of the severity of the illness too. If you wait too long into the illness they are less effective," Bailey said.
There are plenty of flu vaccines still available to people who want them, Bailey said.