Everyone has to get ready for flu season, but healthcare professionals can play an especially key role in preparing for flu season — not only protecting themselves but also their patients, colleagues, visitors, and others around them. Particularly as we continue to slog through the COVID-19 pandemic, preventing and treating flu cases is crucial to keeping people healthy and to maintaining hospital capacity. Nurses tend to know this stuff better than the average person, but let’s do a quick review of the flu followed by how travel nurses and travel allied health professionals like you can specifically help when it comes to preparing for flu season this year!
When is Flu Season?
The flu circulates year-round but flu season in the U.S. is in the fall and winter. According to the CDC, flu activity in the United States tends to peak from December through February but can extend as late as May.
Similarities and Differences Between the Flu and COVID-19
Knowing how to distinguish flu symptoms and COVID-19 symptoms is especially important during the pandemic. Flu, COVID-19, and other respiratory illnesses have many symptoms in common, so a test is really the way to know the culprit for certain, but it’s also helpful to be able to distinguish between some common symptoms when they first begin.
Here are some common symptoms shared between the flu and COVID-19:
- Fever and chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Sore throat
- Nasal congestion or runny nose
- Body aches and muscle pain
- Vomiting and diarrhea (occur mostly in children)
The most telltale symptom of COVID-19 that’s not shared by the flu is loss of sense of smell and/or taste. There are also differences when it comes to contagion, incubation period, and more.
Best Ways to Prepare for Flu Season
Prevention is always the best path when it comes to the flu. So, here are some easy ways that you, your colleagues, and your patients can prepare for the flu:
- Take Care of Yourself
This is number one as there’s a lot you can do to bolster your body’s natural defenses against illness. Exercise, eat a balanced diet, try to avoid stress and/or find ways to relax every day, stay hydrated, take your vitamins (and/or eat them in that balanced diet!), and get plenty of sleep. It can be difficult to keep this up, especially in the busy, stressful healthcare profession, but it’s essential to care for yourself and not let your body get run down. If you don’t have your health, you can’t focus on anything else. Prioritize you and encourage others to do the same.
- Wash Your Hands!
OK, we’ve heard this refrain a lot the past couple of years, but that’s just because it is so essential to preventing illness — including the flu. Make sure you wet your hands, lather, thoroughly scrub for a full 20 seconds, then rinse and dry. “Happy Birthday” is a standard song to hum to ensure you hit the 20-second mark, but there are many other fun options. Nurses are actually often the ones begging everyone around them — patients, visitors, colleagues, friends, and family — to wash their hands. Keep it up!
- Keep it Clean
In addition to handwashing, make sure to keep all surfaces clean — especially hard surfaces which germs and viruses thrive on. Healthcare workers know this routine well, so make sure you keep it clean and inspire others to do the same. It’s also important to use products that contain alcohol, bleach, hydrogen peroxide, and other approved disinfectants. Make sure to give extra attention to frequently touched and common surfaces like phones, computers, door handles, faucets, and light switches. Whenever possible, try to avoid sharing computers, desks, phones, and other work equipment. Whenever not sharing tools is a challenge, try to disinfect before and after your use.
Also, it’s crucial to follow strict cough etiquette and make sure that you always sneeze into a tissue or your elbow, and remember to use hand sanitizer if you’re unable to wash your hands right away. Encourage your patients, visitors, and colleagues to do the same.
- Stock Up on Medicine and Other Supplies
If you do fall sick in spite of your best efforts, make sure to have some non-expired meds on hand to treat yourself, including those for pain relief, fever, and decongestion. It’s also good to stock up on tissues, vitamin C and zinc, chicken soup, crackers, orange juice, anti-bacterial soap, hand sanitizer, cough drops, herbal tea, a thermometer, humidifier, and whatever else might comfort you on a sick day.
- Get the Flu Vaccine
The flu vaccine is a great option for protecting yourself, your patients, and others around you. It’s also helpful to the herd in terms of protecting children, the elderly, the immune-compromised, and others at high risk for developing severe flu complications. If you choose to get the flu vaccine, the best time to get it is typically late September/October. Note: Medical Solutions follows CDC and OSHA guidelines regarding the flu vaccine.
What is a Travel Nurse’s Unique Role in Preparing for Flu Season?
As a healthcare professional, nurses and allied health workers have a unique role and unique risks when it comes to preparing for flu season, according to Natalie Olson, BSN/RN and a Clinical Nurse Manager on Medical Solutions’ team of internal nurses that supports travelers.
“It’s always important for healthcare workers to prepare for flu season because their occupation automatically puts them at a higher risk for exposure to infectious diseases, than the general population,” she says. “However, as a traveler, generally working at a variety of facilities across the country, it is even more important to be prepared for flu season because of the frequency, duration, and variety of destinations when they travel.
- Use PPE Properly and Follow Policy
Nurses and other healthcare workers play a special role in protecting themselves and others from infection by closely following policy and correctly using PPE.
“Adhere to the infection control practices, policies, procedures at your facility,” says Natalie Olson, BSN/RN. “Be sure to use the gloves, gowns, masks, and other PPE provided by your employer and follow the appropriate steps for donning and doffing.”
- Stay Home if You’re Sick
It’s especially difficult to stay off the job when you’re there to ease staffing deficits, but it’s ultimately better for everyone involved that you stay home when you’re sick to help stop the spread of the flu.
“Stay home if you feel ill, and as encourage co-workers to ask permission to leave work if they feel ill,” says Natalie Olson, BSN/RN.
- Discuss High Risk
Travel nurses can be high risk too, and it’s important for you to navigate this to protect yourself, patients, colleagues, visitors, and others.
“If you’re considered ‘high risk’ for complications from the flu — pregnant, asthma, or other high-risk medical conditions — speak with your employer and medical provider about alternative work assignments,” says Natalie Olson, BSN/RN.
Hope This Helps!
We hope these tips will help everyone, but especially healthcare professionals when it comes to preparing for flu season! It takes all of us working together and doing everything thing we can to prevent illness and protect the vulnerable.
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