What is the Flu?
The flu season is upon us. Are you ready for it? Do you know the key symptoms that suggest you may have the flu? And, do you know what to do if you develop symptoms of the flu?
*this article pertains to adults and the flu.
The word “flu” is used a lot as there are many types of flu. But, when we talk about flu season we generally are talking about the flu caused by the influenza virus of which there are three types: A, B, and C. This is the flu for which there is the flu shot.
While there is a flu shot available, there are several mutations that occur to the various types of flu viruses each year making developing a shot that will cover all flu variations impossible. The annual flu shot is designed to cover the most likely 3 or 4 strains/variations of the influenza anticipated for that year. So the makeup of the vaccine can be different from year to year.
Symptoms of Influenza
It’s important to recognize the symptoms of flu so as not delay proper treatment of the flu. Antiviral agents are available to treat influenza but they are not effective if started more than 48 hours from the onset of symptoms.
The symptoms of influenza consist of:
- runny nose (rhinorrhea)
- muscle aches (myalgias)
- sore throat
So if you have these symptoms do not delay in seeking medical attention as there are antiviral medications that can shorten both the severity of the influenza and the duration of symptoms.
Complications of the Flu
Complications of influenza include:
- sinus infection.
- ear infection.
- myocarditis (inflammation of heart).
- myositis (inflammation of the muscles).
- organ failure (kidney and liver).
Flu Numbers to Know
The flu affects about 5% of the adults a year and about 20% of children annually. These numbers represent worldwide. Some years those numbers are higher.
Infection from influenza spreads rapidly as it is transmitted by inhaled infected respiratory secretions. The flu is transmitted even before individuals show symptoms of the flu. Healthy individuals can transmit the flu one day before they show symptoms and up to 5 to 7 days after they show symptoms. People are most contagious after 3 to 4 days of symptoms.
Many people have go to work and spread the flu before they are diagnosed with influenza contributing to the rapid spread of the disease
It is estimated that 80,000 people died in 2018 from the influenza which was more than double the number of deaths in most years.
Treatment for the Flu
Treatment of the flu is largely supportive – treating the individual symptoms with medications like ibuprofen to treat the fever and body aches, cough medicines, nasal sprays/decongestants, and so on.
There are also antiviral medications which are effective if started within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. Tamiflu (oseltamivir) is the most common and comes in a pill form that is taken twice a day for 5 days. There is also Relenza (zanamivir) which is a nasal spray that is used twice a day for 5 days as well.
A new antiviral treatment for influenza was approved in October of 2018 and is called Xofluza. It is just a single dose (2 capsules at once) therapy. It is approved for patients older than 12 years old.
Though these antivirals are effective don’t expect a dramatic recovery as you are still going to have symptoms. Such medications shorten the duration of the flu by up to 2 days or about a 33% reduction in the duration of the symptoms.
So it’s best to avoid getting the flu. One way to do that is to consider the annual flu shot. It is still possible to get the influenza even if you did get the flu shot but the symptoms many times are less serve than they may have been had you not received the shot.
If you do get influenza you should be fever free (without the use of fever reducing medications) for 24 hours before you return to work or school to reduce transmission of the influenza virus to others.
In individuals with weakened immune systems (see below) there can be some benefit in taking antivirals even if started more than 48 hours after onset of symptoms.
High Risk Individuals
The following groups are at high risk for getting infected with influenza.
- individuals over age 65.
- pregnant women and those 2 weeks postpartum.
- those with weakened immune systems (asthma, diabetes, heart and/or lung disease, spinal cord conditions, kidney disease, liver disease, and blood disorders, HIV, and those on immune suppressive drugs – cancer patients and those with autoimmune disease).
- those in high risk environments – hospitals, nursing homes, schools, childcare facilities, offices, college dormitories, etc.
Natural Ways to Prevent the Flu
- Eat plenty of vegetables. The phytochemicals in veggies strengthen the immune system.
- Get regular exercise. Exercise also strengthens the immune system plus you are better able to cope with the symptoms of the flu should you get them.
- Get 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Lack of sleep increases your chances of getting ill.
- Don’t smoke.
- Drink plenty of liquids
- Keep your vitamin D level above 50 which is associated with improved immune function.
For more information on influenza visit the CDC website.