By Kevin Townshend, M.D., for Wausau Pilot & Review
It might start at work with muscle aches and a feeling of overwhelming fatigue. By the time you make it home you just want to crawl into bed and curl up under the covers to try and escape the chills. You may even notice that you are already developing a fever as well as a sore throat.
Between 5 and 25 percent of Americans will come down with influenza (commonly known as the flu) each year, depending on the severity of the outbreak. That’s literally millions of people laid low for about a week at a time.
Influenza is a highly contagious respiratory illness, spread by a virus that circulates most freely in the winter months. Symptoms include fever (usually greater than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), body aches, chills, extreme fatigue, headache, sore throat, dry cough and loss of appetite.
When we have a common cold – also a respiratory illness, but with less severe symptoms – we’re usually able to soldier on. Not so with the flu whose symptoms are severe enough to send us to the couch for several days or worse yet for those that are more vulnerable.
There are two effective strategies for lowering your odds of getting the flu: 1) getting your annual flu vaccination and 2) practicing good hygiene during flu season.
Flu shots offer the best protection against the various strains of the flu virus. A new flu vaccine is created for the Northern hemisphere every year, based in part on the strains circulating in the Southern hemisphere during their winter months. This is why you must get a flu shot every year in order to be properly immunized.
For the 2017/18 flu season the vaccine will be made up of these 3 viral strains: type A Michigan (H1N1), type A Hong Kong (H3N2) and type B Brisbane (B Victoria lineage). Although the vaccine may not be a perfect match for all the strains circulating in any given year, it affords protection you otherwise would not have and can limit the severity of illness.
Influenza vaccines are now available and it’s best to get vaccinated early in the flu season, which typically peaks between December and February…but often begins in October and can go as late as May.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that everyone over six months of age be vaccinated. Despite this recommendation, only 40 percent of Americans get vaccinated in a given year.
The vaccine works by stimulating your immune system to build up antibodies to the strains most likely to circulate. It takes about two weeks for your immune system to reach full strength, which is why it’s best to get vaccinated before the flu starts circulating in your area.
A common misperception is that receiving the flu vaccine can give you the flu. This is NOT true. Injectable flu vaccines come in 2 varieties: one that has an inactivated virus (which cannot cause infection), and one that does not even contain actual virus (the recombinant flu vaccine).
If you develop any symptoms from the flu vaccine at all they are usually mild and last 1-2 days. The most common reaction to the flu shot is mild soreness, redness or swelling at the site of the injection, and is due to the body’s early immune response. Other reactions can include a low grade temperature and muscle aches, but keep in mind any reaction you may experience from the vaccine will be considerably less severe than the actual flu itself.
Seniors, especially those living in nursing homes, the very young, and those with a chronic illness or a compromised immune system are at greater risk for more severe illness and other complications such as pneumonia. They are more likely to need hospitalization and face a greater danger of death as a result of the flu. Immunization is especially important for these individuals. Even though you may be healthy and able to nurse yourself through a bout of the flu, you risk spreading your illness to other more vulnerable populations, which is why it is important for everyone to get vaccinated. It is also worth noting that flu vaccination during pregnancy is both safe and recommended.
Flu is spread most often by droplets that become airborne when someone coughs, sneezes, or even speaks. It can also be spread by shaking hands with an infected person or touching a surface such as a doorknob or keyboard that the person has touched, and then touching your hand to your eyes, mouth or nose.
Washing your hands frequently is a key strategy to avoid contamination, especially if you’re in close contact with a sick family member or co-worker.
Those with flu symptoms should make sure they cover their mouth or nose when coughing or sneezing, avoid kissing or having other close contact with family members, and wash hands routinely throughout the day.
A person with the flu is contagious from a day before symptoms start to about seven days after symptoms develop. Young children can continue to shed the virus for an even longer period.
In most cases the flu can be treated at home. Stay home from work if you’re sick and keep children home from school or daycare as soon as symptoms develop to protect them and avoid spreading the virus. Get lots of rest. Drink plenty of fluids. Stay warm. Take acetaminophen or an NSAID like ibuprofen to help with the aches and pains, and to reduce any fevers. Follow weight-based dosing to give the proper amount of medication to children, and do not give aspirin to any child under age 12.
Because the flu is a viral infection, antibiotics won’t help. Your doctor should not prescribe an antibiotic unless you have developed a secondary infection, such as an ear or sinus infection. There is a medication available that may help shorten the duration of flu symptoms, but it must be taken within the first 48 hours of illness to be effective and only shortens the course of symptoms by about a day and a half.
So don’t let the flu get the best of you this season. Make sure you and your loved ones get vaccinated to keep yourselves healthy and help prevent spreading the disease.
Kevin Townshend, M.D., is a Family Medicine Physician at Ascension Medical Group at Westwood, located at 1901 Westwood Center Boulevard in Wausau. For more information visit ascension.org/wisconsin or call 715.355.9775.