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How EMS can prevent, assess, treat influenza

EMTs, paramedics play an important role in preventing the transmission of influenza with proper PPE use and ambulance cleaning

Is seasonal influenza an unwelcome visitor to your workplace, home or service area? Seasonal influenza activity predictably rises in the fall and winter each year. The CDC posts a weekly U.S. map of influenza activity.

As we enter peak flu season around the nation, heed these tips for influenza prevention, assessment and patient care.

1. Know the signs of influenza

The hallmark signs of influenza are fever, cough, body ache, congestion and fatigue. Use OPQRST to assess for those signs and consider associated signs and pertinent negatives. Take the patient’s temperature - oral for adults and rectal for infants and children under 3-years-old.

Patient severity, as well as underlying health conditions, are the top considerations for determining if the patient needs transport to the hospital.

2. Protect yourself from flu exposure

By now you should have received your annual influenza flu shot. If not, you can probably still get vaccinated. Vaccination is one of the most effective methods for preventing influenza spread and the consequences of infection.

Remember important personal protection with gloves and eye protection. Consider donning a mask if you can’t mask your patient with a surgical mask or non-rebreather mask (but only if the patient has signs of hypoxia).

3. Clean ambulance surfaces and equipment

Disinfect any surfaces the patient’s droplets may have come into contact with.

If this CDC statement is true,"People with flu can spread it to others up to about six feet away” - which surfaces shouldn’t you clean in the ambulance?

Here are ambulance surfaces that often get overlooked:

  • Stretcher and cot rails
  • Buckles and receivers on squad bench seatbelts
  • Action counter adjacent to the patient’s head
  • Blood pressure cuff and stethoscope bell
  • Radio controls and microphone

Please stop touching the steering wheel or mobile data terminal while wearing the gloves you used to assess and treat the patient.

4. Influenza Patient advice

For patients that decline ambulance transport, as well as your friends and family that become ill with influenza, the influenza treatment mainstays are:

  • Rest
  • Fluids
  • Antipyretics, like acetaminophen, for fever
  • NSAIDs, like ibuprofen, for body aches

5. Practice and teach hand hygiene and good cough etiquette

Catch your cough and sneezes in your elbow and not your hands. Wash your hands regularly - before and after every patient contact - with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Learn more about Seasonal Influenza from the CDC.

6. Offer a mobile influenza vaccination clinic

Follow the lead of MedStar (Texas) and offer a mobile vaccination clinic. Groups of 10 or more people - from “your office, home, (homeowners’ association), church, wherever,” Matt Zavadsky said can schedule an appointment to have MedStar come to a place of their convenience and administer flu vaccinations.

This article, originally published December 14, 2010, has been updated

Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol Editorial Director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on Police1, FireRescue1, Corrections1 and EMS1. Greg served as the EMS1 editor-in-chief for five years. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree from the University of Idaho. He is an educator, author, national registry paramedic since 2005, and a long-distance runner. Greg was a 2010 recipient of the EMS 10 Award for innovation. He is also a three-time Jesse H. Neal award winner, the most prestigious award in specialized journalism, and the 2018 and 2020 Eddie Award winner for best Column/Blog. Connect with Greg on LinkedIn.