To get or not to get…the Flu Shot
It’s that time of the year again when you may get sick from the flu. The flu can cause you to miss work or school or even worse–being hospitalized due to flu-related complications. The following are some basics that will help you through the flu season.
So, what is influenza?
Typically called the flu, influenza is a contagious viral respiratory infection that occurs mostly in the winter months (flu season typically starts in October and can go through March or early April). It is typically spread by coughing or sneezing and touching surfaces with the viral droplets. Unlike a common cold, the flu usually comes on suddenly. Flu symptoms can be mild or severe and include some or all of the following: fever (temperature normally higher than 100ºF, lasting 2 to 5 days), sore throat and cough, headaches, muscle aches, fatigue, runny or stuffy nose.
How is it diagnosed?
Your doctor can diagnose the flu based on symptoms, especially when the prevalence of influenza in the community is high. Sometimes testing is indicated to determine if influenza is the cause of the symptoms especially if there is an outbreak of other respiratory illness or in patients who are at increased risk for complications.
The most common test is the “rapid flu test,” where your doctor swipes the inside of your nose or the back of your throat with a swab. The test can provide results within 10-15 minutes though it may not be as accurate. That is, you can still have the flu even though the result is negative. Based on clinical judgement, your doctor may diagnose you with the flu based on symptoms and treat you accordingly. There are other flu tests (such as the “rapid molecular assays”), which are more accurate though may not be readily available at your doctor’s office.
How is influenza treated?
Most people will recover within one to two weeks without treatment. Complications can occur with the flu especially in certain populations (ie. young children or the elderly, pregnant women, diabetics, people with heart or lung problems, people with weakened immune systems).
As a doctor, I typically advise supportive care for flu symptoms, mostly to help patients feel better. These treatments include rest until the flu has resolved, adequate fluid intake, and acetaminophen as needed (for fever, headache, and muscle aches). If you are sick with the flu, you should stay home for at least 24 hours after the fever has resolved.
There are antiviral medicines (such as Oseltamivir, aka Tamiflu) that can be used to treat or prevent influenza. As a treatment, these medications can reduce the severity and duration of symptoms when taken within the first 48 hours of symptom onset. I typically prescribe them for the severely ill or those with risk factors as mentioned above. Remember, antibiotics are not useful for treating influenza.
More importantly, how do you prevent the flu?
The MOST important step in protecting against influenza is–Get your annual influenza vaccination!
During flu season, take preventive actions to stop the spread of the flu. Encourage your family or friends to cover their nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing. Afterwards, they can wash their hands with soap and water. You can also clean and disinfect surfaces or objects that may be contaminated. Try to avoid close contact with sick people. While sick yourself, try to limit contact with others to prevent transmission.
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