BY MARISSA MAGUIRE, MPAS, PA-C,
Ascension Medical Group
It might start at work with muscle aches and a feeling of overwhelming fatigue. By the time you make it home you just want to crawl into bed and try to get warm. You can feel that you already have a fever as well as chills and a sore throat.
Between 5 and 25 percent of Americans will come down with influenza, commonly known as the flu, each year, depending on the severity of the outbreak. That’s literally millions of people laid low.
Influenza is a highly contagious respiratory illness, spread by a virus that circulates most freely in the winter months. Symptoms include fever (usually between 101 and 102 degrees Fahrenheit), body aches, chills, extreme fatigue, headache, sore throat, dry cough and loss of appetite.
When we have a cold–also a respiratory illness but with less severe symptoms–we’re usually able to soldier on. Not so with the flu whose symptoms are severe enough to send us to the couch or bed for several days.
There are two effective strategies for lowering your odds of getting the flu.
Get an annual vaccination
Flu shots offer the best protection against the various strains of the flu virus. A new flu vaccine is created for the Northern hemisphere every year, based in part on the strains circulating in the Southern hemisphere winter.
For the 2017/18 flu season the vaccine will be made up of A/Michigan (H1N1), A Hong Kong (H3N2) and B/Brisbane (B Victoria lineage) virus. Although the vaccine may not be a perfect match for all the strains circulating in a given year, it still affords some protection and can limit the severity of illness.
Influenza vaccine is now available and it’s best to get the vaccine early in the flu season which typically peaks between December and February.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that everyone over six months of age be vaccinated. Despite this recommendation, only 40 percent of Americans get vaccinated in a given year.
The vaccine works by stimulating your immune system to build up antibodies to the strains most likely to circulate. It takes about two weeks for your immune system to reach full strength which is why it’s best to get the vaccine before flu starts circulating in your area.
Practice good hygiene during flu season
Flu is spread most often by droplets that become air-borne when someone coughs, sneezes, or even speaks. It can also be spread by shaking hands with an infected person or touching a surface such as a doorknob or keyboard that the person has touched, and then touching your hand to your eyes, mouth or nose.
Washing your hands frequently is a key strategy to avoid contamination, especially if you’re in close contact with a sick family member or co-worker.
Those with flu symptoms should make sure they cover their mouth or nose when coughing or sneezing and avoid kissing or having other close contact with family members.
A person with the flu is contagious from a day before symptoms start to about seven days after symptoms develop. Young children can continue to shed the virus for an even longer period.
In most cases flu can be treated at home. Stay home from work if you’re sick and keep children home from school or daycare as soon as symptoms develop to protect the sick patient and to avoid spreading the virus. Get lots of rest. Drink plenty of fluids. Stay warm. Take acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) to reduce muscle aches. Don’t give aspirin to children under age 12.
Because flu is a viral infection, antibiotics won’t help, unless you have developed a secondary infection such as an ear ache or sinus infection.
Seniors, especially those living in nursing homes, the very young, those who are very obese (with a BMI over 40) as well as those with a chronic illness or a compromised immune system are at greater risk to develop complications such as pneumonia. They are more likely to need hospitalization and face a greater danger of death as a result of flu. Immunization is especially important for those who are most vulnerable.
Marissa Maguire, MPAS, PA-C, is a Family Medicine Physician Assistant with Ascension Medical Group, Rhinelander.