Once again, winter is approaching, and the flu season is fast upon us. The Flu is caused by a contagious respiratory virus known as Influenza. Winter is the season for Influenza, and in the United States Flu season can range from November to May.
Influenza is usually spread from person to person by air and respiratory droplets when one individual coughs and sneezes. The Influenza virus may also be spread by direct contact, when one individual touches the respiratory droplets left on an object by another individual.
A patient will be contagious beginning one day prior to developing symptoms and up to five days after becoming sick. Symptoms usually start within four days after the virus enters the body. This means that you may be able to pass on the infection not only while you are sick, but also before you even manifest any symptoms.
The CDC estimates that approximately 36,000 deaths occur each year in the United States as a result of Influenza, and more than 200,000 people have to be admitted to the hospital as a result from the illness.
Anyone is susceptible to getting the Flu. However, certain groups of the population are considered high risk and are more likely to suffer from complications from Influenza. These include people age 65 years and older, young children, people with chronic medical problems, and pregnant women.
The Influenza virus can exacerbate chronic medical problems. For example people with Congestive Heart Failure and Asthma may experience worsening symptoms. And pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus and ear infections are just some examples of complications from the Influenza virus.
Influenza is associated with an abrupt onset of illness and may be associated with a fever ranging from 100 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. A sore throat may be present and severe in intensity, and last three to five days in duration. Patients commonly complain of severe body aches which may be associated with headaches. Severe fatigue, weakness, and lethargy are also hallmarks of the infection. Patients may also experience a runny nose, cough, red watery eyes, and diarrhea.
Your local doctor may want to check a Complete Blood Count (CBC) to evaluate your white blood cell count, which would most likely be elevated with an infection.
Viral cultures can be done to evaluate and diagnose Influenza. However, cultures are rarely done since it can take three to seven days to process the results, and patients are usually on the road to recovery by then. At MY DR NOW we use rapid Influenza tests which can provide us with results within a matter of 5-10 minutes. This test in conjunction with a physical exam, can make for a fairly accurate assessment and diagnosis of Influenza.
Like most other disease processes, prevention is the most effective strategy. The Influenza vaccine which is now available at MY DR NOW, is administered prior to flu season each year, and becomes effective 10-14 days after immunization. The different types of Influenza vaccine subtypes are analyzed each year by the CDC, and necessary changes are made, and a vaccine that contains antigens from strains which are most likely to cause an infection during the flu season are produced. Currently everyone is encouraged to obtain the flu vaccine.
There are some common myths about the flu shot which you need to be aware of. The FLU SHOT CANNOT CAUSE THE FLU, it is a killed virus vaccine which cannot cause infection. The flu shot will not protect you from other viruses which may feel like the flu. If you feel ill after receiving the flu shot, it is because you were either exposed to someone with the flu prior to the shot, or you may have been infected by another virus. It is important to remember that the flu shot will not protect you from other viruses that can cause illnesses that may resemble Influenza. Overall, it is important to remember that the flu shot is very safe, and most people experience no symptoms after receiving the flu shot, except some soreness where the needle was injected.
Antiviral medications like Tamilflu are available. These medications are generally tolerated well, and the advantages associated with their use, include significantly reducing the severity of the illness and duration. High risk patients and the elderly, also have a reduction in the number of secondary complications associated with Influenza. However, for this medication to be effective, it must be administered within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. You should return for further evaluation if your symptoms don’t resolve after a few days. And patients who are immunocompromised or who suffer from a chronic underlying disease should be aware of potential complications, and are encouraged to return sooner if concerned.
Basically, the take home message is to get in to your local doctors office as soon as possible for your annual flu shot. If you feel ill with flu like symptoms, you should have a full medical evaluation. And if the flu is diagnosed, antiviral medications should be started within the first 48 hours of the onset of symptoms in order to reduce both the severity and duration of the illness.