When patients come into our office at Westfield Premier Physicians with concerns they may have “the flu,” I’ve come to learn over the years the term means different things to different people.
As a nurse practitioner, one of the first things I do is ask the patient to describe their flu symptoms. Many think symptoms of feeling achy and puny from a cold are caused by the flu, while others with vomiting and diarrhea think they have the stomach flu.
True influenza, or respiratory flu, causes more severe symptoms, especially in the elderly, the very young and those with compromised immune systems.
What Are the Symptoms of Influenza?
Respiratory influenza can range from a mild to severe illness, with most people getting over it within several days to several weeks. The symptoms are fever, cough, runny nose, headache, sore throat, body aches and fatigue.
When a patient comes in with true respiratory influenza, you can almost tell from the moment you walk into the exam room and see them lying on the exam table. Even without doing a flu test, you know they’re likely to test positive for influenza. Flu symptoms can also be mild, particularly for those who got a flu shot, or they can be more severe, depending on your health status at the time.
Why Is It Important to Get a Flu Shot?
Influenza is a respiratory illness caused by different types of influenza viruses. Each year, the CDC and the flu vaccine manufacturers try to predict which viruses are going to be most active in the upcoming flu season. They put those viruses into an immunization, or flu shot, which is designed to help our bodies make the antibodies we need to fight off the flu.
It’s important to get a flu shot, not only to protect yourself but those around you, from getting the flu. If you have elderly parents, young children, friends or family undergoing cancer treatment, it’s much harder for all of those folks to recover if they catch the flu.
Can You Still Get the Flu If You Get a Flu Shot?
Some people refuse to get a flu shot because they say it doesn’t work and they end up getting the flu anyway. It is possible to get the flu after having a flu shot, but your symptoms could be much worse and more severe without getting the shot.
I believe it might have been last year or the year prior where the flu viruses they picked out to put in the immunization mutated, so the flu shot in those cases was not as effective as usual because the virus itself changed.
While I think it's always important to get a flu shot, sometimes our body doesn't make the antibodies as robustly or as well as it should, and we may not have the best immunity possible to begin with. The flu shot will help you build immunities, while sometimes more effective than other times.
How Do We Treat Flu Symptoms?
For most healthy people between the ages of 5 and 65, we treat influenza with rest, fluids and usually an over-the-counter medicine like Advil or Tylenol to help with the fever and body aches.
We can also prescribe an antiviral medicine, such as Tamiflu. An antiviral medication doesn’t kill the flu virus like an antibiotic kills a bacterial virus. An antiviral medication slows down the influenza virus, so it stops replicating as quickly and the symptoms become less severe.
Tamiflu can help to shorten the duration of respiratory influenza, but we typically only use it in cases where people are very ill or experience chronic health problems. To be effective, you need to start taking the prescription within the first 48 hours of feeling ill.
Follow the 3 Cs to Avoid the Flu
A flu shot is the No. 1 way to avoid coming down with the flu this season. Hands down, that’s the best way to protect yourself and those around you from getting sick.
No. 2: Wash your hands! The flu virus is released through tiny droplets when you talk, cough or sneeze. Those droplets land directly on another person or on an inanimate object like a table, doorknob or faucet. When another person touches it, then touches their nose, eyes or mouth, that’s how the flu virus is transmitted from one person to the next.
Follow the 3 C’s — Clean, Cover and Contain — to avoid getting the flu.
Clean the virus from your hands by washing often, and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
Cover the virus by using your elbow or a tissue when you need to sneeze or cough, then wash your hands.
Contain the virus by staying home when you run a fever, feel sick and just want to crawl into bed.
We never want to give our bodies a chance to rest by staying home, not going to work and avoiding other people. During the 2017-2018 flu season, 80,000 people died from influenza. Granted, most of the deaths involved patients over the age of 65 or very young children, but I wonder how many could have been avoided with a flu shot?
During this flu season, protect yourself from infection by taking a common-sense approach: get your flu shot, stay home when you're sick, and wash your hands. Those simple measures can help keep you well, along with those you love. There’s a reason our mothers always told us do all three. They work and keep the entire house healthier overall.
If you have questions about flu symptoms and treatment, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.