Winter is coming. As colder weather approaches and more people stay indoors — and in close proximity to each other — our offices begin to see more patients with sore throats, upper respiratory illnesses, sinus infections and colds. The majority of these illnesses are caused by viruses. As doctors, we begin to see cases develop in October, peak during January and February, and finally begin to taper off in March.
More than Just a Cold
This time of year, we also begin to see patients with “flu-like” symptoms. An influenza infection, commonly called “the flu”, is different from the common cold because it’s caused by the influenza virus, which can potentially be much more severe than the common cold.
In the most susceptible patients, such as the elderly, or those with underlying medical conditions, severe flu illness can be potentially life-threatening. Adults with the flu virus usually are contagious one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after symptoms develop. Children may be contagious for more than seven days.
How Does the Flu Spread
The virus is spread primarily by “droplet” contamination, meaning that when an infected person talks, sneezes or coughs, droplets containing the virus can spread to others up to six feet away. The droplets can land in the mouths and noses of others and can be inhaled into the lungs. This is why it’s important to cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing and wash your hands afterward.
The next most common method of infection is from touching a surface that has the flu virus (such as a doorknob) and then touching your mouth or nose. Washing your hands frequently with soap and water or using alcohol-based waterless hand cleansers are the best ways to prevent this transmission. Any items used by infected individuals, such as dishes, silverware, linens and towels, shouldn’t be shared and should be washed thoroughly before reusing.
Get a Flu Shot
The most important piece of advice to remember regarding preventing the flu is to get vaccinated. Vaccination not only prevents the vaccine recipient from illness but also prevents the spread of the flu throughout the community.
The flu vaccine must be given annually. It contains three of the four most common strains of the influenza virus for the upcoming flu season based on sophisticated computer models that predict which virus will be most likely to be circulating in a particular year. The flu vaccine is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for everyone over the age of 6 months.
What Are Flu Symptoms?
Symptoms of the common cold and the flu can have similar symptoms and may be hard to differentiate. Flu symptoms tend to be more severe and include:
- High fever (although the flu can occur without a fever)
- Dry cough
- Sore throat
- Runny or congested nose
- Body aches
- Muscle aches
Patients may occasionally develop nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Your fever may last three to five days, and cough and exhaustion can last up to two weeks. The symptoms generally start abruptly.
But Do I Really Have the Flu?
Your doctor will determine if you have the flu based on your symptoms and his clinical assessment of your physical condition. The most common testing used is the rapid flu test, when a swab is taken from the nose or throat and analyzed. This test can detect the flu usually within a few minutes. Unfortunately, this test is not foolproof, meaning you can have a negative test and still have the flu. Generally, if your doctor suspects the flu based on symptoms, patient risk factors and the pattern of flu infections in the community, he or she will begin treating the virus even if the rapid flu test is not performed.
How to Treat the Flu
- You can treat flu symptoms with and without medication
- Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medications to help alleviate your symptoms
- Antibiotics are only necessary if your viral illness has developed into a bacterial infection
Remember, influenza virus symptoms are usually more severe than the common cold and can be dangerous for the elderly, young and high-risk patients with underlying medical problems. The flu virus is contagious, and proper precautions should be taken to prevent getting the flu or spreading it to others.
Frequent hand washing and covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing can help eliminate the potential of contamination. The most effective method of prevention for individuals and their communities is vaccination. There is no cure for flu. If treated early, antivirals can reduce the severity and duration of flu symptoms. Call or stop by our office today if you think you have the flu.
If you need medical attention for a non-life-threatening illness or injury, eMedical Urgent Care is open seven days a week from 8 am to 8 pm to treat walk-in patients.