How do you know if you have the flu and not something else?

Dec. 1, 2017

Dr. Trevor Bush got a terrible case of the flu when he was in medical school.

Bush remembers well how horrible it was. That’s why he’s always first in line every year to get his flu shot.

Bush is a family medicine specialist and medical director of UCHealth Urgent Care facilities in northern Colorado.A doctor speaks with a patient in this photo.

You may be hearing that this year’s flu vaccine is less effective than it has been in recent years. The vaccine is never perfect. Even so, Bush and experts with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention always recommend getting an annual flu shot.

Infants and older adults are most at risk for suffering potentially deadly health consequences if they get the flu, but anyone who gets the flu can become extremely sick. And the last thing you want to do is miss out on a favorite holiday gathering or special times with your family during this festive season.

“I get the flu vaccine every year,” Bush said. “Not only are you miserable (when you get the flu) but it puts you out of commission for so long. It’s really something to take seriously.”

Bush explained that influenza is very different from what people sometimes describe as “the stomach flu” or “the 24-hour flu.” That’s not the real flu. People who suffer from stomach bugs can certainly feel lousy. But their sicknesses are usually short-lived. They probably had gastroenteritis, a completely different virus.

Influenza, generically dubbed “the flu” is much more serious. And, once you get it, you’ll do just about anything to keep from getting it again, Bush said.

This is a picture of Dr. Trevor Bush.
Dr. Trevor Bush

There are hundreds of strains of influenza virus. Generally, one to four strains a year cause the majority of illness and those are the ones targeted by the annual vaccine. Sometimes, the researchers who create the vaccine don’t guess the strains for the next season perfectly.

“Sometimes the vaccine’s effectiveness is as high as 70 percent accuracy, and sometimes only 20 to 30 percent,” Bush said.

No matter what, patients should get the vaccine because even an imperfect shot could lessen the severity of the illness.

There’s no confusing the flu with its weaker cousins. Symptoms include a dry, hacking cough, moderate to high fever (101 or higher), sore throat, shaking chills (“also called rigors”), severe muscle and body aches (“almost debilitating, where you just don’t want to move”) and a serious headache. You also can have severe fatigue, runny nose, upper respiratory symptoms and sometimes, mostly in children, nausea, and vomiting. Adults most often experience a loss of appetite.

From the time of exposure to the time symptoms begin to appear is typically about 24 to 72 hours, Bush said. And you are contagious from the time you contract the virus all throughout the illness – which usually lasts 7 to 10 days. Even after the worst symptoms disappear, a patient may need more days to fully recover from the illness, though they are no longer contagious.

Who’s at risk during flu season?

The most vulnerable, in a normal flu season, are the very young and the very old, he said. Also at risk are those with already compromised health situations, such as diabetes, heart disease or pregnancy.

However, every so often, a strain comes around that hits healthy young people hardest, the H5N1 “bird flu” for example.

If you do contract the flu, should you see your doctor?

“That’s a good question,” Bush said. “There are antiviral medications available for both treatment and prophylaxis. In some years, the CDC recommends antivirals for everyone with the flu, and in other years just for those at high risk. My suggestion is this: If you have a positive flu contact and you think you have it as well, go to the doctor and get the test to see if you do, then have a discussion with your doctor about whether or not to initiate antivirals. They need to be initiated within the first couple of days of symptoms to do any good. And it doesn’t alleviate the symptoms, just lessens them in most cases.

“That being said, if you have a family member who is ill and have other family members who are vulnerable, you may want to consider getting a prescription for oseltamivir, also called Tamiflu.”

If you go to the doctor, don’t you run the risk of contaminating others?

“That’s a valid concern,” he said. “If you are otherwise healthy, then you have to make a decision about the need to seek medical help and take a chance of also infecting others.”

As in some sports, the best defense is to employ the best offense.

To avoid contracting the flu, to begin with, he recommends “vigorous hand-washing, using disinfectant on surfaces touched by many others (such as phones, railings, counters, etc.), and coughing into your elbow to avoid spreading germs with your hands.”

He also said to avoid touching your face during flu season – “which we do surprisingly often, once you are aware of it.”

If your immune system is compromised, he also suggested wearing a mask when you go into places where there are a lot of people. “That’s absolutely appropriate.”

 A quick and easy way to get a flu shot

It’s not too late to get a flu vaccine. If you haven’t received one yet, call your health care provider.

If you think you have the flu, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or visit a UCHealth Urgent Care. location near you.

About the author

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs and a regular contributor to UCHealth Today. She has written travel articles for major U.S. newspapers and national, regional and local magazines. She spent 32 years as an award-winning writer, reporter and editor for The Gazette in Colorado Springs.