From: Denver Brown
PA-C, Winona Health family medicine
It’s that time of year again. We’ve enjoyed the holidays with friends and family and in the process exchanged some unwanted infectious maladies.
Influenza is a common but often confusing subject, so I thought I would address some of the common questions and misconceptions regarding this illness.
1. Influenza is not the “stomach flu.” Influenza is a respiratory virus that causes symptoms of fever, body aches, cough, sore throat, headaches and fatigue. Symptoms are often severe and people feel like they want to be in bed all day. Gastroenteritis is the medical term for what most people call the “stomach flu.” Usually the main features of this are vomiting and diarrhea. In most cases it resolves in a day or two and generally is not dangerous except for significant dehydration that can occur in some cases.
2. “The influenza vaccine didn’t help me in the past or it made me sick.” Facts: The influenza injection vaccine does not have anything “alive” in it and does not cause influenza. The influenza nasal spray has an alive but weakened virus and has the possibility to cause infection and so is limited to certain types of patients. Influenza vaccination also does not protect against the common cold viruses. The influenza vaccine provides no protection against the “stomach flu” because they are completely different bugs.
3. Myth: Influenza is not dangerous. Facts: Severity changes year to year but according to the CDC, influenza causes between “140,000 and 710,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 and 56,000 deaths annually since 2010.” Generally, young and healthy folks without other complicating factors do not get dangerously ill. Young children (especially under two years of age) and adults over 65 are more likely to have severe influenza that is sometimes life-threatening. There are also medical conditions that can increase your risk of a dangerous influenza infection including pregnancy, heart disease, asthma, COPD, and diabetes to name a few.
4. How to prevent infection: Influenza vaccination is helpful, but the effectiveness of the vaccine does vary year to year and does not guarantee protection. Good old hand washing and avoiding contact with people who have influenza are good steps for prevention.
5. “How do I treat influenza?” For most of us, just staying at home, resting and using symptom relief medications is totally appropriate. If you have risks for severe infection as listed above, you should think about seeing a health care provider to get an antiviral medication that can help decrease the severity and length of the illness. The CDC website (cdc.gov/flu) provides a complete list of indications for antiviral therapy. It is important to note that treatment is generally only effective if started in the first 48 hours of the illness, so this is not something to wait for if it is indicated.
So, a toast, to health, to increased awareness of influenza and a year of staying free of flu!