What exactly is “the flu?” It is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses.
Similar to the common cold, people with the flu often have a runny nose, cough, and sore throat. But, unlike the common cold, the flu also attacks the entire body and can manifest as: a fever of 100o F or higher, headaches, body aches, chills, fatigue, and nausea, vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children).
Who are at an increased risk for complications from the flu? Children, pregnant women, the elderly (older than 65 years of age), and those with chronic health conditions (heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and emphysema).
What are common complications of the flu? They include pneumonia, dehydration, and ear and sinus infections. In addition, those with chronic health conditions can experience worsening of their disease: a person with heart disease may experience angina (chest pain); diabetics may develop very high blood sugar levels; asthmatics may start wheezing; and a person with emphysema may become short of breath.
What can I do to prevent it? The flu vaccination, commonly referred to as “the flu shot,” is the best method of prevention. Although it is not 100 percent effective, it protects 60-70 percent of people who get it. The flu shot is recommended for everyone over 6 months of age and particularly those who are at high risk for complications.
Stay away from people who are coughing and sneezing. The flu virus is most commonly spread via aerosolized droplets that can travel up to six feet. The virus can also survive on surfaces or objects and infect a person if they touch their mouth or nose. During the flu season, wash your hands frequently, don’t touch your mouth, nose, or eyes, and wipe down surfaces and objects that may be infected.
When should I get the flu shot? Yesterday. If you haven’t already, please get it as soon as possible.
Flu season begins in October and it takes up to two weeks after receiving the vaccine for our immune system to develop antibodies.
This allows for the antibodies to be ready and loaded to fight off a potential infection before peak season.
What are some myths about the flu shot? —“I can get sick from the vaccine.” This is impossible because the flu shot is formulated from inactivated/dead virus. When this occurs, it is likely because you were exposed to the influenza virus before antibodies were formed. It is important to note that even if you still get the flu after receiving the flu shot, you are less likely to experience pneumonia, time lost from work, hospitalizations, and death.
—“I didn’t get the flu last year.” This means you were lucky, not a superhero with special powers.
—“I don’t have time.” Face it, you don’t have time to get sick for 1-2 weeks, take off from work, be hospitalized, or die. It takes less than 15 seconds to perform.
—“It costs too much.” The majority of recipients have no out-of-pocket costs. If you do pay for it, it is typically less than $30 and MUCH cheaper than a doctor’s office or emergency room visit or taking vacation days.
How is the flu treated? Antibiotics, like penicillin, fight bacteria and are not effective against the influenza virus. Antivirals, however, can be effective and “attack” the flu virus after you are sick. There are a handful of approved antivirals that your doctor may prescribe to reduce symptoms, the duration of illness, and serious complications of the flu. These medications work best when started early.
Over-the-counter medications are available to treat flu symptoms including fever, aches, sore throat, and runny and congested nose as well as post-nasal drip.
It is very important to drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration may occur because of fever, lack of appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea. And, of course, stay home, rest, and recover!
How long am I contagious? Experts state that it is possible to infect others one day before symptoms develop (before you even know you’re sick!) and 5-7 days after symptoms appear. Children and those with weakened immune systems may be contagious for longer periods.
Admittedly, the flu shot is not 100 percent effective, but it does significantly decrease our chances of getting the flu. In business lingo, this would qualify as being a great return on investment. And after having had the flu while in college, I would like to state: “fool me once, shame on you, flu; but I’m certainly not going to be fooled twice.” Please go out and get your flu shot today!
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Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists where she serves on committees for Young Physicians and Communications. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.