Text by Dr. Nina Radcliff & Feature Photo by K. Cecchini
What exactly is “the flu?” It is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. Similar to the common cold, people with the flu often have a runny nose, cough, and sore throat. Unlike the common cold, the flu also affects the entire body and can manifest as:
• A fever of 100° or higher
• Headaches or body aches
• Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea (more common in children)
Who are at an increased risk for complications from the flu? Children, pregnant women, the elderly (older than 65 years of age), and those with chronic health conditions (heart disease, diabetes, asthma, emphysema. Complications include pneumonia, ear and sinus infections, and dehydration. In addition, those with chronic health conditions can experience worsening of their disease: a patient with a history of heart disease may experience angina (chest pain); a patient with diabetes may develop very high blood sugar levels; a person with asthma may start wheezing; and a patient with emphysema may become short of breath.
What can I do to prevent it? The flu vaccination, commonly referred to as “the flu shot,” is the best method of prevention. Although it is not 100% effective, it protects 60-70% of people who get it. The flu shot is recommended for everyone over 6 months of age and particularly those who are at high risk for complications.
Stay away from people who are coughing and sneezing. The flu virus is most commonly spread via aerosolized droplets that can travel up to 6 feet. The virus can also survive on surfaces or objects and infect a person if they touch their mouth or nose. During the flu season, wash your hands frequently, don’t touch your mouth, nose, or eyes, and wipe down surfaces and objects that may be infected. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
When should I get the flu shot? Yesterday. If you haven’t already, please get it as soon as possible. Flu season begins in October and it takes up to two weeks after receiving the vaccine for our immune system to develop antibodies. This allows for the antibodies to be ready and loaded to fight off a potential infection before peak season.
What are some myths about the flu shot?
• “I can get sick from the vaccine.” This is impossible because the flu shot is formulated from inactivated/dead virus. When this occurs, it is likely because you were exposed to the influenza virus before antibodies were formed. It is important to note that people who get immunized, but still get the flu are less likely to experience pneumonia, time lost from work, hospitalizations, and deaths.
• “I didn’t get the flu last year.” This means you were lucky, not a superhero with special powers. Remember, even Superman was vulnerable to kryptonite.
• “I don’t have time.” Face it, you don’t have time to get sick for 1-2 weeks, take off from work, be hospitalized, or die. It takes less than 15 seconds to perform.
• “It costs too much.” The majority of recipients have no out-of-pocket costs. If you do pay for it, it is typically less than $30 and MUCH cheaper than a doctor’s office or emergency room visit or taking vacation days.
How is the flu treated? Antibiotics, like penicillin, fight bacteria and are not effective against the influenza virus. In some situations, it is possible to have a bacterial infection along with, or caused by, the flu that will require antibiotics. Antivirals, however, can effectively “attack” the flu virus after you are sick and reduce symptoms, the duration of illness, and serious complications of the flu. These medications work best when started early.
Flu symptoms—fever, headaches, body aches, runny nose, congestions, sore throat—may be treated with over-the-counter medications. It is very important to drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration may occur because of fever, lack of appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea. And, of course, stay home, rest, and recover!
How long am I contagious? Experts state that it is possible to infect others one day before symptoms develop (before you even know you’re sick!) and 5-7 days after symptoms appear. Children and those with weakened immune systems may be contagious for longer periods.
When should I seek emergency medical attention? Most healthy people can recover at home without seeing a physician or being hospitalized. However, you should call your doctor or seek immediate medical care if you develop the following symptoms:
• Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath may suggest that your organs are not getting enough oxygen
• Chest pain may be pneumonia, wheezing, or heart disease
• Severe or persistent vomiting can cause dehydration and can lead to symptoms such as dizziness or confusion
• Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and a more severe cough.
• If you are unsure
Notice: This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither Dr. Nina Radcliff or Kimberly Cecchini take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.
Before engaging in any complementary medical technique, including the use of natural or herbal remedies, you should be aware that many of these techniques have not been evaluated in scientific studies. Use of these remedies in connection with over the counter or prescription medications can cause severe adverse reactions. Often, only limited information is available about their safety and effectiveness.