By Gail Feinberg, DO
Influenza, Flu, H3N2, H1N1…what exactly are we talking about?
We are talking about a very contagious illness caused by a virus that infects the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. It can cause a mild illness, however at times it can lead to death, which is why doctors and other healthcare professionals stress getting a flu vaccine each year.
People who have the flu have SUDDEN onset of fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, muscle and body aches, headache and fatigue. Vomiting and diarrhea are also common in young children, and not everyone with flu will have a fever. The sudden nature of these symptoms is what distinguishes it from a bad cold, for example.
The flu spreads mainly by tiny droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly eyes. People with the flu are most contagious in the first 3-4 days after their illness begins, and the time from when a person is exposed to flu virus and infected to when symptoms begin is about 1 to 4 days, with an average of about 2 days.
Anyone can get the flu, and serious problems related to the flu can happen at any age, but some people are at high risk of developing serious flu-related complications if they get sick. This includes people 65 years and older, people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease), pregnant women, and young children. Complications are numerous and can include pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes.
No, the flu vaccine DOES NOT give you the flu. You are NOT getting a shot with a live flu virus in it. It CAN give you a runny nose and make you feel a bit run down for a day or two, and you may have a low fever and some body aches. The best time to get your flu shot is 4-6 weeks before the peak flu season, so usually October, however you can still get protection even as late as December/January if you get the flu shot then.
Every year new flu vaccine is created to protect against the 3 or 4 flu viruses that are most likely to spread during the next flu season. As the virus is constantly changing, the vaccine changes every year, and it is important, therefore to get a flu shot EVERY year. In some years like this, certain flu viruses may not appear and spread until later in the flu season, and this makes it difficult to prepare a vaccine in time for total prevention of the flu. We have noted that this year the vaccine has not been as effective as in years past. HOWEVER, there is still ample protection to be given, so it is important to get the flu shot if you have not received one already.
It is very difficult to distinguish the flu from other viral or bacterial causes of respiratory illnesses on the basis of symptoms alone. There are tests available to diagnose flu. If you get to your doctor within the first 2 days of symptoms, antiviral drugs can be prescribed which can lessen the symptoms and shorten the time you are sick by 1-2 days, and, most importantly, prevent serious flu complications like pneumonia. General antibiotics will NOT help with the flu.
In summary – get your flu shot every year – even if it is not 100% the right virus protection combination, it will help your body fight the serious complications of the flu. Make sure you cover your mouth when you cough and wash your hands frequently if you do have symptoms, and see your healthcare worker early if you suspect you may have the flu.
Gail Feinberg, DO, is the Chair of the Primary Care Department at Touro University California College of Osteopathic Medicine