Influenza — or, “the flu” — is a common virus that affects the breathing system.
Flu is caused by one of three influenza viruses: A, B, or C. (Usually A or B). Most cases of the flu occur during the Flu Season, which usually begins in late fall (November) and lasts through early spring (March).
How Serious is the Flu?
The common cold is sometimes confused with the flu, but the flu is much more severe than a common cold. Flu symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening illness. It’s estimated that 5-20% (600,000 to 2.4 million) of Pennsylvanians get the flu each year, and that 120 to 2,000 die from complications of flu.
How Contagious is the Flu?
VERY. It’s spread through tiny, wet drops produced when a person coughs, sneezes, or talks. A person can get the flu by breathing in these wet drops, or by touching items and surfaces covered with these drops, then touching his/her own mouth, nose, or eyes.
People with the flu can spread it to others from roughly 1 day before symptoms appear to 5 -7 days after. People with weak immune systems can spread the flu virus for a longer period of time.
People are most contagious during the first three days of illness, and some people can spread flu to others without feeling sick themselves.
What are Signs & Symptoms of the Flu?
People with the flu usually develop symptoms suddenly, not gradually. Most symptoms last 3 to 4 days, but some, such as cough and tiredness, can remain for several weeks after the fever and other symptoms go away.
People with flu can have some all or some of:
- Fever (as high as 104ºF and lasting 3-4 days)
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Feeling VERY tired (as the image to the right points out in a humorous way)
How Do You Diagnose the Flu?
The diagnosis of flu is based on symptoms. Sometimes we use a “rapid flu” test to help with the diagnosis. But we don’t test everyone who thinks they may have the flu; we only do that if we think testing would change how we would prescribe care for that person.
How Do You Treat the Flu?
The mainstay of flu treatment is supportive care:
- Get plenty of rest
- Drink a lot of fluids
- Take medications to relieve the symptoms (but never give aspirin to children or teenagers who have flu-like symptoms, especially fever, without first talking to a provider)
Antiviral medications can be used to treat the, especially for people considered “high risk” for complications from the flu, including:
- Young children, especially those younger than 2 years
- Adults 50 years and older
- People of all ages with chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart disease, kidney or liver disease, weakened immune system, blood cell disease including sickle cell, or neurological diseases that affect swallowing or breathing
- Pregnant women and women who have given birth within 2 weeks
Because these people can get very sick from the flu, it’s important that they, and everyone who lives with or takes care of them, get a flu vaccine. (See below.)
Antiviral therapy (like Tamiflu), when started early — within the first 2 days of symptoms — can shorten the duration of flu symptoms by 1-2 days and help reduce complications such as pneumonia, ear infection, and sinus infection.
Antibiotics are not used to treat the flu, because the flu is caused by a virus, and antibiotics fight infections caused by bacteria. Taking antibiotics when you have a virus won’t help and may actually do harm; taking unnecessary antibiotics increases the risk of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. (For more on the good, the bad, and the ugly of antibiotics, see our excellent Doctor’s Note on the subject.
If symptoms are unusually severe — for example, having difficulty breathing — call us in the office right away.
How Can You Protect Yourself From the Flu?
Good preventative measures include:
- Wash hands frequently with soap and water, and/or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue (or shirt sleeve) when sneezing, coughing, or nose blowing
- Don’t share personal items like toothbrushes or drinks
But best possible protection you can get is the flu vaccine…
The Flu Vaccine
It’s important for everyone 6 months and older to get a flu vaccine every fall and winter. The ideal time to receive the flu vaccine is by October if possible, though vaccinations later can still be beneficial. Vaccines take two weeks to become effective. Children ages 6 months to 8 years who are receiving the flu vaccine for the first time may require a booster shot one month after their first vaccination.
Contrary to popular myth, the flu shot can NOT give you the flu.
Side effects — including redness, soreness, and/or swelling at the injection site, muscle aches, and low-grade fever are usually mild and short-lasting. (And they pale in comparison to the effects of the flu!)
If you have a severe egg allergy, talk to one of the providers first before receiving a flu vaccine.
And, as always, if you have any questions, just give us a call in the office. We’re always happy to help!
Dr. Mara Richardson is a former Kids Plus Provider.