The 7 flu facts you need to know
Sanders McEachern | Special Contributor
Fall is the beginning of flu season, meaning it’s also the right time to start thinking about protecting yourself. Influenza viruses are active year-round, but more people catch the flu during the fall and winter months than at any other time of year.
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by one or more strains of the influenza virus. Many of us catch it multiple times during our lives and see it come and go within a couple of weeks without much need for medical attention. But when aggressive strains of the virus develop and spread through densely populated areas, the flu can become a public health crisis.
During the peak of the flu season, the disease can turn particularly deadly, costing thousands of Americans their lives — 4,000 per week in 2017, to be exact. That number includes individuals with preexisting conditions exacerbated by the virus, such as bacterial pneumonia and congestive heart failure.
Flu facts from the experts
Here are some quick facts you should keep in mind this flu season, plus some tips for avoiding infection.
- Catching the flu is all too easy. People are often exposed to the virus by encountering someone who has the flu, even in its early stages before symptoms begin to appear. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the tiny droplets of fluids released into the air by sneezing, coughing or even speaking can spread the influenza virus. Those who contract the flu are most contagious during the first three-to-four days of the illness, although they can still be vectors for the disease for nearly one week.
- Exposure to the virus does not have to be direct. Picking up the flu virus from a surface or an object that a sick person has recently touched (say, from grabbing the same door handle at a restaurant or using the same pen at work) is less likely than catching it from direct human contact. However, touching your mouth, nose or eyes before washing your hands may give the virus what it most needs to flourish — access to your respiratory system.
- The flu can act like other illnesses. Many of us don’t recognize that we have the flu until our symptoms turn severe. Unfortunately, that belated realization helps the flu spread more quickly. The flu is also aided by its ability to mimic other common illnesses that operate in the nose, throat and lungs. For example, if you are prone to allergies or ear infections, you may be more likely to treat flu symptoms with over-the-counter medications rather than by seeking professional medical treatment. The flu usually appears more suddenly than a cold or sinus infection, however, and symptoms often escalate more quickly. In addition to coughing, a sore throat and a runny nose, the flu can cause fever, body aches, headaches, chills, fatigue, diarrhea and vomiting.
- Your risk from the flu may be higher than you realize. Many people are aware that children age 5 and under, people 65 and older and those with compromised immune systems are more vulnerable to severe illness when they catch the flu. However, women are also at greater risk during pregnancy and two weeks postpartum. The flu may worsen chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma and lung disease. Also, people with liver, kidney or metabolic disorders also face an increased risk of complications from the virus.
- You don’t have to have a fever to have the flu. Some patients — particularly the elderly, immunosuppressed and those on certain medications — may not run a fever with influenza. If you know you are at an elevated risk for experiencing complications from this disease, see a doctor if you are feeling sick during flu season, even if you aren’t running a fever.
- During flu season, your doctor may diagnose the flu and decide to treat you with antiviral medicines, even without testing for the virus. This is because some types of rapid influenza diagnostic tests are not as accurate as other types of flu tests. Your doctor may decide to treat you for the flu based on your symptoms and their clinical judgment.
Even if you are not yet experiencing severe symptoms, remember that the flu can quickly progress to serious illness, especially if you are in a high-risk group. Aggressive treatment may still be required to ensure you do not develop complications.
“Antivirals are most effective if they are started within the first two days of illness, but starting them after two days can still be helpful, especially if you are hospitalized, have severe illness or are in a high-risk group for complications from influenza infection,” says Cristie Columbus, MD, chief of infectious disease at Baylor University Medical Center, part of Baylor Scott & White Health.
- Getting a flu shot remains your best defense. Doctors recommend getting vaccinated as early in the fall as you can, and before flu season gets into full swing. Last year’s harsh flu season may have peaked from December to February, but it began in early October. Even vaccines that are less than 50 percent effective can save lives.
For one thing, those who chose to take the vaccine and still contract the flu are less likely to see severe symptoms or have their illness escalate to the point that hospitalization becomes necessary. Perhaps more importantly, however, getting vaccinated helps promote what scientists call herd immunity. As John Joseph II, MD, a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Clinic – Killeen, notes, “When a high percentage of a community is immunized against a contagious disease, like the flu, most members of the community are protected because there is little opportunity for an outbreak to occur. Even individuals who are unable to get the vaccine receive some protection since the spread of the contagious disease is contained.”
For more information on protecting yourself from seasonal flu, visit Baylor Scott & White Health’s website.
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