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Flu season is quickly approaching, and it is something for which we all should prepare. Influenza, or the respiratory flu, typically peaks in January and February, and every year it is associated with illness ranging from the mild to the severe. At times, hospitalization may be needed to treat influenza-related complications. Sadly, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that influenza related deaths annually range in the thousands.
But first, what is the flu? The flu is a general term for seasonal influenza, a viral infection that attacks our respiratory system. Symptoms often come on suddenly and, at first, may often seem like a common cold with a runny nose or congestion, sneezing and sore throat. These symptoms typically progress and may include the following:
- Fever, or feeling feverish (not all will experience fever with influenza)
- Body aches and muscle stiffness
- Chills and sweats
- Fatigue and weakness
- Nasal congestion
It’s important to note that seasonal influenza is NOT the same thing as what many people refer to as the stomach flu — a common term for an intestinal infection that causes diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea, and vomiting.
The influenza virus travels through the air in droplets. We can inhale the droplets when an infected person sneezes, coughs or speaks and aerosolizes the virus. Less likely, but possible, we can pick up the virus by touching objects previously contaminated and then inoculate ourselves by touching our eyes, nose or mouth. If we are young and healthy with a robust immune system, the flu is usually self-limiting, i.e. resolves with supportive care. However, high-risk individuals can develop serious complications from the flu, most notably, pneumonia, which can lead to respiratory failure and death. People in the high-risk category include:
- Young children
- Adults over age 65
- Pregnant women
- People with chronic illnesses, especially chronic lung conditions
- People with weakened immune systems
There are several simple steps we can take to decrease the chance of getting the flu.
- Get an annual vaccination. The CDC now recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone over the age of 6 months. The flu vaccine is available as an injection or a nasal spray. While the vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective, it is, by far, our best defense from getting the flu. One cannot ‘get the flu’ from these immunizations, as the vaccination contains inactivated, or killed, virus or weakened virus incapable of causing the disease.
- Wash your hands. Practicing good hand hygiene not only can keep us from catching the flu, it also prevents other common infections. Scrub your hands vigorously for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can also be effective.
- Cover our coughs and sneezes. Whenever we cough or sneeze, we should cover our nose and mouth with a tissue, or use the “vampire” (Halloween is coming!) method by pulling your arm up and coughing or sneezing into your sleeve at the elbow. Try not to cough or sneeze into your hands.
- Avoid crowds during peak flu season. The influenza virus spreads easily wherever people congregate — in child care centers, schools, office buildings, auditoriums and public transportation. While we don’t have to be reclusive, avoiding crowds during peak flu season can lower our chances of ‘catching’ influenza. We should also stay home from work and school when ill to prevent further spread of the virus.
Usually rest and drinking plenty of fluids are the two best treatments for most cases of the flu. There are antiviral medications which can shorten the duration of symptoms and may be appropriate for some patients. If symptoms are progressive and severe, or if one is at high-risk for influenza-related complications, then seeing one’s provider early is an important part of protecting one’s health.