There’s no doubt about it: the 2011 flu season is upon us. So we’re back with another Ask The Expert post from Jen, where she dives deep and tells you what you need to know about the flu.
Last year around this time, I remember walking the hall of the ICU were I work, fearing for my life.
My unit was full of young healthy people who were fighting for their lives. These people were all around my age, they had no medical history and yet here they were on life support, not knowing from minute to minute if they were going to die.
I specifically remember a 29 year-old woman who was 26 weeks pregnant with her first child and she was dying.
Even though these people were my age and dying and their cases made me fear for my life, I still cared for them. I also knew that I was protected. Why? Because I received my flu shot.
That is right, all these people lay in the ICU fighting for their lives because they had the flu.
What is the flu?
The flu is an infection of the nose, throat, and lungs caused by the influenza virus. There are different strains of the flu, Influenza A; Influenza B and H1N1.
Most people catch the flu when they breathe in tiny droplets from coughs or sneezes of someone who has the flu. It is also spread when you touch a surface, such as a faucet handle or phone that has the virus on it, and then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes.
Symptoms appear 1 – 7 days later (usually within 2 – 3 days). The flu spreads easily. It often strikes a community all at once. Many students or workers become sick within 2 or 3 weeks of the flu’s arrival in a school or workplace.
Sometimes people confuse colds and flu. They do share some of the same symptoms. But most people get a cold several times each year and the flu only once every few years. People call a viral illness that makes them throw up or have diarrhea “stomach flu.” but this is incorrect. The flu virus does not cause the stomach symptoms. Flu infections mostly cause symptoms in the nose, throat, and lungs.
Symptoms of the Flu
The flu usually begins quickly. The first symptoms are a fever between 102 and 106 °F. (An adult typically has a lower fever than a child.)
Other common symptoms include:
- Body aches
- Flushed face
- Lack of energy
- Nausea and vomiting
Between day 2 and day 4 of the illness, the fever and “whole body” symptoms begin to fade. Then breathing symptoms begin to increase.
- The symptom is usually a dry cough.
- Most people also develop a sore throat and headache.
- Runny nose (a clear, watery nasal discharge) and sneezing are common.
These symptoms (except the cough) usually go away in 4 – 7 days. Sometimes, the fever returns. The cough and feeling tired may last for weeks.
Treatment of the Flu
Treatment of the flu is symptom based. So how do you treat your symptoms?
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) help lower fever. Sometimes doctors suggest you use both types of medicine.
- Take acetaminophen every 4 – 6 hours.
- Take ibuprofen every 6 – 8 hours.
- Do NOT use aspirin.
A fever does not need to come all the way down to normal. Most people will feel better when their temperature drops by even 1 degree.
Over-the-counter cold medicines may make some of your symptoms better. Cough drops will help with your sore throat.
Take these steps also:
- Drink plenty of liquids
- Avoid alcohol and tobacco
What About Antiviral Medications?
Most people with milder symptoms feel better in 3 – 4 days. They do not need to see a doctor or take antiviral medications.
Doctors may give antiviral drugs to people:
- Who become very sick with the flu
- Who are at high risk for flu complications
These drugs may shorten the time you have symptoms by about 1 day. They work better if you start taking them within 2 days of your first symptoms.
The medicines that may be used are zanamivir (Relenza) or oseltamivir (Tamiflu).
Children at risk of a severe case of the flu may also need these medicines.
Don’t Ignore Prevention!
This is includes good hand hygiene, stay home if you are sick and a flu shot.
There are two types of flu vaccines: a flu shot and a nasal spray-type vaccine.
The flu shot contains killed (inactive) viruses, so it is not possible to get the flu from this type of vaccine. However, some people do get a low-grade fever for a day or two after the shot as their immune systems gear up to recognize the virus. The flu shot is approved for people age 6 months and older.
A nasal spray-type flu vaccine called FluMist uses a live, weakened virus instead of a dead one like the flu shot. It is approved for healthy people aged 2 to 49 who are not pregnant. The vaccine helps the lining of the nose fight off actual viral infections. It should not be used in those who have asthma or children under age 5 who have repeated wheezing episodes.
Prognosis of The Flu
Each year, millions of people in the United States get the flu. Most get better within a week or two.
But thousands become sick. They need to stay in the hospital. About 36,000 people die each year from complications of the flu. Anyone at any age can have serious complications from the flu, but those at highest risk include:
- People over age 50
- Children between 6 months and 2 years
- Women more than 3 months pregnant during the flu season
- Anyone living in a long-term care facility
- Anyone with chronic heart, lung, or kidney conditions, diabetes, or a weakened immune system
Possible complications from the flu, especially for those at high risk, include:
- Encephalitis (infection of the brain)
- Sinus infections
- Ear infections
And as always, if you are sick and feel uncomfortable about treating for yourself or those in your family, please call your doctor.
For more information about the flu or flu vaccine please check out these sites
More from Jen in our Ask the Expert series:
Around these parts, Jen is our go-to SITStahs with the answers to your health questions. To ask a question of your own, be sure to visit her in The SITS Girls discussion forum here.
Also be sure to read last week’s post from Jen, where she helped us learn how to tell the difference between a cold and the flu.
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