Influenza Primer: What You Need to Know

For the first time in 13 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC reports that the entire continental US has widespread flu activity so the more you know about the disease, the better. Rashida McCain-Hall, M.D., with Meritus Urgent Care, explains that influenza, or flu, is a respiratory illness caused by a virus. Because it’s a virus, not a bacterial infection, antibiotics cannot help.

Similar to a cold, flu symptoms include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, a runny and/or stuffed nose, body aches, headaches and fatigue. Some flu patients also experience diarrhea and vomiting, but the flu’s telltale sign is that it hits fast and furious.

The virus that packs a punch

The CDC labels this year’s flu as “severe” because of the number of people being hospitalized or dying from it. Thanks to an early November onset and a dominate H3N2 flu strain, this year’s flu packs a punch. To make matters worse, the flu vaccine is estimated to be about 30 percent effective compared to a 40-60 percent effectiveness rate as seen in past years.

Flu prevention strategies

“There are several steps you can take to prevent the flu,” says Dr. McCain-Hall.

Get vaccinated. Even with a low effectiveness rate, the flu vaccine helps ease the severity and duration of flu symptoms says Dr. McCain-Hall. She strongly recommends that everyone six months and older get a flu shot.

Avoid close contact with people who are sick. “The flu is spread through droplets in the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes and therefore it’s highly contagious,” says Dr. McCain-Hall.

Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub and avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes.

Get plenty of rest, stay hydrated and exercise to strengthen your immune system.

Stay home if you have flu symptoms. “People can be contagious one day before symptoms start and five to seven days after,” says Dr. McCain-Hall. “Children can be contagious even longer.”

“If you think you have the flu, pay close attention to your symptoms,” says Dr. McCain-Hall. Most people recover from flu in five to seven days, but seek immediate medical attention if you have trouble breathing, your fever can't be controlled with ibuprofen or acetaminophen—or if your fever comes back. And of course, get plenty of rest and stay hydrated.

Dr. McCain-Hall cautions that flu is a common cause of pneumonia – a fluid buildup in the lungs that results in reduced oxygen supply. It also can lead to sepsis, a blood stream infection that causes inflammation and possible organ failure.

People most at risk for complications related to the flu include adults over 65, babies and young children, pregnant women, people with respiratory conditions and those with weakened immune systems. For this population, antiviral medications, such as Tamiflu, can prevent serious complications from the flu, but they must be taken within 48 hours of the start of symptoms.

Influenza isn’t a new superbug, but more than ever, it demands that you get vaccinated, wash your hands and closely monitor symptoms if you do contract the bug.