As an ER doc I can attest that the floodgates of cold and flu season have opened. This has been one of the worst flu seasons in almost a decade and part of the reason is this year’s vaccine has not been a good match to the observed strains. The flu virus strains mutate and have genetic drift every year and even during the year, as it moves from the eastern hemisphere to the western. That is why we don’t have lifelong immunity to the flu after vaccination as we do with other viruses. In addition, every year we are required to come up with a new vaccine, based on the prediction of which virus strains might be dominant. Sometimes, as it did this year, after vaccine production began, the virus shifted enough so that this year’s vaccine is not preventing as many cases as in years past. It has been only 23% effective, making for a very severe flu season.
So here are 5 important facts you should know about the flu
1. A vaccination still helps! —-Even though the vaccine match is not very good for this year there still is some cross reactivity with the virus, therefore offering some protection. If you have been vaccinated but still get the flu it will be less severe and you will be less likely to have any complications requiring hospitalization…so there is still time to get vaccinated because the season goes until March!
2. Cold or flu? —-To determine if you have the flu or a cold here are some things to keep in mind. Colds start gradually with symptoms of sore throat and stuffy nose whereas the flu hits you suddenly like a freight train! The flu causes high fevers and body aches. Both the flu and colds can cause coughing but everything is much more severe with the flu. A quick guide, if all your symptoms are above your neck think cold, if the main symptoms are muscle aches and cough below your neck think flu!
3. Antiviral medications being used more frequently! —- In the past we reserved the antivirals such as Tamiflu and Relenza just for flu patients who had other medical conditions (such as asthma or diabetes), which made them higher risk for severe flu complications such as pneumonia. This year the CDC is recommending antiviral meds for almost everyone who comes down with the flu. If taken within 48 hours of onset of symptoms, they can shorten the illness and help prevent serious complications.
4. When should you go to the ER with the flu? —- Signs that you are having serious complications from the flu are when your symptoms are getting worse over time not better or if your symptoms are lasting more than 2 weeks or if you start feeling better then relapse with vomiting, high fever, shaking chills and cough with thick yellow green mucus. Also if you have any trouble breathing or you notice your lips or fingertips are dusky and bluish, call 911 and get to the ER right away. This may indicate you have come down with post-influenza pneumonia, which is a serious condition that is linked to deaths from the flu.
5. Prevention is still the key when it comes to the flu! —- Hand washing is one of the most important things you can do during flu season. As a doctor at work and at home I wash my hands regularly. And before I touch anything at work such as the phone, keyboard or my chair I wipe everything down with antiseptic wipes! Even at home you should wipe all the common surfaces such as the TV remote, door handles, frig and microwave. We bring germs home from everywhere and when you touch a contaminated surface then touch your face, eyes, nose or mouth or eat something before washing your hands you can get sick. Also, don’t think you are a hero at work by going in sick; you are just infecting others. Stay home and rest if you are not feeling well, this helps prevent the spread of colds and flu this season.
Be smart this flu season and protect yourself and your family!