6 things you need to know to fight influenza

Besides the start of the school term and football season, fall also brings the cold and flu season, at least here in North America, and I believe most of the world. This is usually the busiest time of the year in physician offices, emergency rooms and hospitals. This information may make this season easier for you and for your doctor.

  1. If you think you have “the flu”, you probably don’t.

To many people “the flu” is any respiratory illness characterized by some combination of fever, cough, congestion, fatigue and aches. That term has become so nonspecific even we doctors use it that way. But it more correctly refers to influenza, which is just one of many viruses that cause illness. The illnesses caused by the other viruses are usually called “colds”, upper respiratory infections, aka URIs, bronchitis, pharyngitis, sinusitis and pneumonia.

The human respiratory system
The respiratory tract including the nose, sinuses, mouth, throat, trachea, bronchi in blue and the lungs (pink). Infections can involve the breathing organs from the nose all the way down to the lungs. (photo complimentary from Pixabay)
  1. If your doctor thinks you have “the flu”, you probably do.

Prior to the availability of the “rapid flu” test, we doctors diagnosed influenza the characteristic symptoms, confirmatory findings on exam, and knowing there was an outbreak in the community. The test is not absolutely necessary but is helpful for confirmation in the event the illness doesn’t progress as expected. Besides, we can charge for it and patients have come to expect it now.

3. The best way to prevent influenza is by vaccination.

The World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) , the National Foundation for Infectious Disease and every other reputable medical organization recommends vaccination against influenza. People refuse vaccination (some even at recommendations of physicians) because they believe it is ineffective, unnecessary, dangerous, toxic, unnatural, subversive, and who knows what else. And  I don’t think I or anyone else am going to change their minds.

My family and I always get vaccinations which have successfully protected us without side effects or adverse reactions. There are risks, just like there are with any medical procedure, or lots of other things we do in life. In this case we have decided the benefit outweighs the risk.

If you don’t want a “flu shot”, just say no. Your doctor doesn’t need or want to hear a speech;the doctor won’t make  money from giving the vaccine, more likely loses money.

  1. If you want to avoid getting influenza, avoid being around people who may be infected.

This means everyone, since one may be contagious 2 to 3 days before symptoms. It’s not a coincidence that influenza outbreaks coincide with the American holiday season (approximately November through January). So to protect us all,

  • Stay home if you are sick, and ask your family, co-workers and employees to do the same.
  • Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Wash frequently touched surfaces frequently.

sign saying wash your hands

  1. If you do get sick, don’t ask your doctor for an antibiotic.It will not help. 

    Antibiotics attack bacteria. Influenza and 99% of all respiratory illnesses are due to viruses.

There are 2 antiviral drugs that will “shorten the duration and severity of symptoms” by 1-2 days, if started early. The effectiveness is uncertain for an illness that will resolve within 10-14 days regardless. But if it gets you back to school or work a day earlier, it may be worth the cost-they are not cheap drugs.

Otherwise, the treatment is“symptomatic” or “supportive” care:

  • Rest; eat and drink as normally as possible; extra fluids if running a fever 
  • Non-prescription cough/congestion /pain/fever meds

Here are  general guidelines  on what to do if you get a respiratory illness.

  1. You can die from influenza, but you probably won’t.

I cringed last year when a friend wrote on her social media page, “My doctor said, ‘No one dies of the flu’.” And, technically, that is true. People die from complications of influenza, and infants, young children and the elderly have greatest risk.The most common fatal complication is bacterial pneumonia, infection in the lung. Influenza can also attack the nervous system causing brain inflammation (encephalitis and/or meningitis) and paralysis in the form of Guillain Barre syndrome .

an xray of healthy lungs with no signs of pneumonia.
Healthy lungs with no signs of pneumonia.

Persons with chronic illnesses like diabetes, lung disorders, depressed immune systems and cancer are at greater risk of complications and should always consult a physician if feeling ill. If you are not sure if you fall into that category, ask your doctor.

Influenza is a disease to take seriously; consider my suggestions, talk to your doctor, and stay healthy this season.

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