Influenza basic facts and illness prevention

Here we go again. It’s time to get ready for flu season.
October 5th, 2016

While the flu can come at any time during the year, patients begin to show up in doctors’ offices in late November. The number of patients who have new infections peaks in mid-February and in the months that follow we see fewer and fewer cases of flu until the season ends in June.

Now is the perfect time to plan for flu season.

Germ Basics

The flu (technically, “influenza”) is actually a family of viruses that settle in the nose, throat and lungs causing a body-wide reaction as we try to fight it off. These viruses are busy trying to survive so they are constantly changing. This is why the influenza vaccine is different each year, and why the shot you received last year is unlikely to provide any protection to you this year.

Influenza strains typically develop in other species and often figure out how to infect humans. Just because they make the “jump” to infect humans, however, doesn’t mean they will be dangerous. In order to be dangerous in humans, influenza must learn two lessons.

Lesson 1: The flu virus must learn how to travel from one person to another so it can be shared easily between people. The Swine flu of 2009 was a great example of a strain that learned this lesson well. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), during the 2009 flu season twice as many people were infected with the flu than in any of the three prior seasons. Fortunately, this strain never learned the second lesson.

Lesson 2: This is the lesson we hope influenza never learns – how to make people seriously ill. While regular seasonal flu can make people pretty sick (especially if they are frail to start) there are strains which are better at harming humans than others. So far we have been very lucky and only rare strains of influenza have learned this lesson.

Illness Basics

Once a person is exposed to the virus it takes 2-7 days until symptoms develop. Typically the first thing people experience is a sudden sense of being very, very tired, chills and achy muscles. The flu can come with many other symptoms including: fever, headache, cough, limb or joint pain, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach upset, sneezing, runny nose, sore throat, and loss of appetite.

Treatment Basics

If you feel sick, stay home to limit the possible spread of germs. Influenza is spread by the droplets that come with coughs and sneezes. That’s why washing your hands and wearing a mask is so important. If you are well and near people who are sick with the flu, a mask may protect you from the droplets. Typically the illness lasts 5-7 days. Fortunately, most infections from the past few years have been mild.

Stay home for at least two days after you are free of fever (without the use of fever-reducing medications). If you are a caregiver and taking care of sick family members who have the flu, talk to your doctor about an antiviral medication to help protect you from getting the flu.

Anti-viral medications for the flu work best if given in the first 48 hours of the illness but most people do not need these antiviral drugs to fully recover from the flu. Typically these are reserved for hospitalized patients and those who are very young, very old, pregnant, or frail.

Get medical care right away (call 911 or go to an Emergency Room) if you or a loved one has:

  • Difficulty breathing, chest pain, or purple or blue discoloration of the lips.
  • Persistent vomiting and is unable to keep liquids down, or has signs of dehydration such as dizziness when standing, absence of urination, or, in infants, a lack of tears when crying.
  • Confusion, less responsive than normal, or seizures.

Prevention

Having influenza is no fun. Preventing the illness by getting the flu shot is optimal for you, your family and your community.

By getting a flu shot, you are teaching your body what the virus looks like so you can effectively fight it off naturally.  The influenza vaccine is developed each year with broken bits and pieces of the strains most likely to be in our area that year. By getting your flu shot early you give your body time to recognize the germ and build your own defenses. The vaccine isn’t perfect, but it can help reduce how severe the illness is if you become infected.

Whoa, I got the shot one year and it gave me the flu! The shot can’t “give you the flu” because it doesn’t contain any live virus, it only has broken bits and pieces of the virus. Most likely, your body was so unfamiliar with those bits and pieces of the virus in the immunization that it worked overtime and was plain wiped out. Getting the vaccine annually helps your body grow defenses so that it doesn’t have to work as hard each year to keep that flu virus away.