This week autumn begins in the northern hemisphere. Where I live, fall brings brilliant orange,yellow and red to our trees and shrubs, the start of the school term and football season. Unfortunately, fall also brings the cold and flu season.
This is usually the busiest time of the year in physician offices, urgent care clinics, 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 fever, cough, congestion, fatigue and aches. That term has become so nonspecific even we doctors use it that way. But flu refers to influenza, one of many viruses that cause illness. The other viral illnesses are “colds”, upper respiratory infections, aka URIs, bronchitis, pharyngitis, sinusitis and pneumonia.
If your doctor thinks you have “the flu”, you probably do.
Prior to the “rapid flu” test, we doctors diagnosed influenza by the characteristic symptoms, exam, and knowing there was an outbreak in the community. The test is helpful for confirmation 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 other reputable medical organizations recommend vaccination against influenza.
People refuse vaccination because they believe it is ineffective, unnecessary, dangerous, toxic, unnatural, subversive, and who knows what else. I don’t think I or anyone else are 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; we’ve already heard them all.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
Here are some other posts about winter illness you may find helpful.