Jeffrey Green, M.D.
Flu season is quickly approaching, and it is something for which we all should prepare. Influenza, or the respiratory flu, typically peaks in January and February, and every year it is associated with illness ranging from the mild to the severe. At times, hospitalization may be needed to treat influenza-related complications. Sadly, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that influenza-related deaths annually range in the thousands.
But first, what is the flu? Flu is a general term for seasonal influenza, which is a viral infection that attacks your respiratory system. Symptoms often come on suddenly and, at first, often may seem like a common cold with a runny nose or congestion, sneezing and sore throat. These symptoms typically progress and may include these symptoms:
- Fever or feeling feverish (not all will experience fever with influenza)
- Body aches and muscle stiffness
- Chills and sweats
- Fatigue and weakness
- Nasal congestion
It’s important to note that seasonal influenza is not the same thing as what many people refer to as the stomach flu, which is a common term for an intestinal infection that causes diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea and vomiting.
The influenza virus travels through the air in droplets. You can inhale the droplets when an infected person sneezes, coughs or speaks and aerosolizes the virus. Less likely, but possible, you can pick up the virus by touching objects previously contaminated and then inoculate yourself by touching your eyes, nose or mouth. If you are young and healthy with a robust immune system, the flu is usually self-limiting, meaning it resolves with supportive care. However, high-risk individuals can develop serious complications from the flu— most notably, pneumonia — which can lead to respiratory failure and death. People in the high-risk category include:
- Young children
- Adults over age 65
- Pregnant women
- People with chronic illnesses, especially chronic lung conditions
- People with weakened immune systems
There are several simple steps you can take to decrease the chance of getting the flu:
- Get an annual vaccination. The CDC now recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone over the age of 6 months. The flu vaccine is available as an injection or a nasal spray. While the vaccine isn’t 100% effective, it is, by far, your best defense from getting the flu. You cannot get the flu from these immunizations as the vaccination contains inactivated, or killed, virus or weakened virus incapable of causing the disease. Find out more about local vaccination clinic information and locations near you.
- Wash your hands. Practicing good hand hygiene not only can keep you from catching the flu, it also prevents other common infections. Scrub your hands vigorously for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer also can be effective.
- Cover your coughs and sneezes. Whenever you cough or sneeze, you should cover your nose and mouth with a tissue, or use the “vampire” method by pulling your arm up and coughing or sneezing into your sleeve at the elbow. Try not to cough or sneeze into your hands.
- Avoid crowds during peak flu season. The influenza virus spreads easily wherever people congregate — in child care centers, schools, office buildings, auditoriums and public transportation. While you don’t have to be reclusive, avoiding crowds during peak flu season can lower your chances of catching influenza. You also should stay home from work and school when ill to prevent further spread of the virus.
Usually, rest and drinking plenty of fluids are the two best treatments for most cases of the flu. There are antiviral medications that can shorten the duration of symptoms and may be appropriate for some people. If symptoms are progressive and severe, or if you are at a high risk for influenza-related complications, then seeing your provider early is an important part of protecting your health.Learn how to clean up your hand-washing skills, and download a flier and coloring sheet about hand-washing.