Influenza (or the flu) afflicts roughly 60 million Americans annually, particularly during the winter. Seasonal flu viruses come in two basic varieties: type A, which causes the most extensive and severe outbreaks, and the typically milder type B. Usually during flu season, viruses from both types are present.
Each year, some of these viruses can mutate, which is why a new flu vaccine is prepared every year. Major mutations are often the cause of pandemics because the immunity that we acquire over time from repeated exposure or vaccination may no longer be effective. Unusual new variant flu viruses may also arise sporadically, such as the swine flu variant that appeared in summer 2012 or the avian flu that was first detected in Hong Kong back in 1997 and which still causes occasional small outbreaks. Currently, these have not been of sufficient concern to warrant inclusion in the seasonal flu vaccines.
What are the health risks associated with the flu?
For the most part, the flu doesn’t pose serious health risks and gets better on its own. Although symptoms can feel severe, serious complications such as pneumonia are uncommon, and flu-related deaths remain rare, most occurring in people with serious underlying health problems like the elderly, children, and women in the second or third trimester of pregnancy.
How does the flu spread?
Flu spreads person-to-person primarily from the airborne particles generated by coughing and sneezing, but also by physical contact. It’s not clear whether the flu can be spread by touching items such as clothing or hard surfaces previously touched by someone with the virus.
What are the symptoms of the flu?
Flu symptoms are usually more severe than those of the common cold. Symptoms typically develop one day to seven days after exposure, and can last from a few days to two weeks. They may include any or all of the following:
- Fever (usually 100°F or higher, lasting for several days), often with chills
- Body aches or muscle aches
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Eye pain, such as burning, pain on eye movement or sensitivity to light
- Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea or nausea and vomiting, are fairly uncommon
Should I get tested for the flu?
If you have the symptoms described above during a flu outbreak, it’s likely you have the flu and there’s usually no need to be tested. The flu vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective, so don’t assume you have something else if you’ve been vaccinated. However, flu symptoms can occur in other diseases like pneumonia and pertussis (whooping cough) as well, so to be certain, contact your primary care provider to see whether a visit is necessary. There has been a jump in pertussis cases in the past few years because immunity from the new tetanus-pertussis-diphtheria vaccine lasts only several years, so if your predominant symptom is a loud, uncontrollable cough, your health care provider may want to see you. In most cases, however, it’s best to stay at home and rest.
What’s the best treatment for the flu?
There’s really no substitute for classic, common sense treatments. Rest, drink plenty of fluids, avoid alcohol and tobacco, and take acetaminophen (Tylenol) and/or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) for fever and body aches. Avoid aspirin if you’re under the age of 19 (children and teenagers can develop a severe disorder called Reye’s syndrome if they take aspirin when they have the flu).
Do antiviral medications like Tamiflu help?
During the first 48 hours of the illness, antiviral medications such as the oral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or the inhaled drug zanamivir (Relenza) can lessen the severity and shorten the duration of the disease. However, if taken more than 48 hours after the onset of symptoms, they have little effect.
Whether or not you’re treated with one of these medications, you should start feeling better within a few days. If you don’t get better or you get worse (your fever spikes or you become short of breath), you may have a complication. Seek medical attention immediately. If you’re a One Medical member, call our office and ask to speak with our medical staff for more advice.
Who should take antiviral drugs for the flu?
There are two categories of people who should take antiviral medications for the flu: People who are very sick with the flu (e.g., people whose illness is so severe they need to be hospitalized) and people who are sick with the flu and at risk of developing serious flu complications, either because of their age or because of a high-risk medical condition. If you have the flu but you’re not in either of these two categories, you don’t need to be treated with antiviral drugs.
How can I prevent spreading the flu?
Wash your hands frequently, cough and sneeze into your arm (not your hands), and throw out tissues immediately after use. Most importantly, stay home.
When can I return to work or school?
Don’t return to work or school until you have had a normal body temperature (under 100°F without taking a fever-lowering medication such as Advil or Tylenol) for at least 24 hours.
How long will I be contagious?
You’re contagious from the day before you develop symptoms until 24 hours after your fever breaks.
Am I at risk for complications of the flu?
You are at increased risk for complications if:
- You are pregnant
- You have a chronic medical condition, such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, asthma, emphysema, cancer, or HIV
- You are age 65 or older
- You are younger than age 5
- You are younger than age 19 and are receiving long-term aspirin therapy
If you fall into any of these categories and are feeling sick, or have been exposed to someone with a confirmed case of influenza, call our office and ask to speak to a medical staff member for further guidance.
When should I go to an emergency room?
You should go directly to an emergency room for further evaluation and treatment if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Bluish skin color (this may mean your lungs are not bringing enough oxygen into your body)
- Confusion or sudden dizziness
- Persistent or severe vomiting
How can I protect myself from getting the flu?
- Wash hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer frequently (although soap and water is best). Be aware of touching surfaces like doorknobs, faucets, phones, and keyboards and wash hands afterward. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth unless you have clean hands.
- Try to stay at least six feet away from people who appear ill, and avoid sharing food or drinks during an outbreak. Wearing a mask is not necessary.
- Keep your immune system healthy. Get plenty of sleep (eight hours a night is ideal), drink plenty of water, and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and other unhealthy vices.
- Get vaccinated!
Will I get sick if I have been exposed?
There’s no way to know for sure, but if you’ve followed the guidelines above, and especially if you’ve received the appropriate vaccinations, you’ve got a good chance of remaining healthy. If you are in the at-risk group described above, you should consider taking an antiviral medication like oseltamivir or zanamivir to further reduce your chances.
Should I get a seasonal flu shot?
Everyone stands to benefit from getting a seasonal flu shot. It’s especially important if you are pregnant (or planning to become pregnant), over the age of 50, have any sort of chronic medical condition, or are caring for someone who is at risk for complications of influenza. Flu shots don’t offer 100 percent protection against the flu, but are a little better than 60 percent effective. When you consider how many millions of people are affected, 60 percent is nothing to sneeze at!
Is it too late to get the flu shot?
It’s never too late to get the flu shot.
Are flu vaccines safe?
Yes. Flu vaccines have been studied carefully and are generally very safe. However, if you’ve had an allergic reaction (or other bad reaction) to a vaccine in the past, be sure to let your health care provider know before you receive any vaccine. Also let your health care provider know if you are allergic to eggs. Most people with egg allergies can safely take the vaccine, but it depends on the severity of your allergy. Side effects are uncommon and limited to low grade fever, mild achiness, and a sore arm. The risk of a significant complication is—at most—estimated at approximately one in one million people who receive the vaccine.