In this Medical Dispatch, I want to talk a little about Influenza, also known as the Flu. The flu and the common cold is the most infectious virus out there, infecting millions every year.
So we need to know more about it. What are the symptoms, treatments and when to seek medical advice from our doctors.
What’s the difference between a cold and the flu?
The common cold and the flu may seem similar at first. They are both respiratory illnesses and can cause similar symptoms. But different viruses cause these two conditions. Your symptoms will help you tell the difference between the two.
Both a cold and the flu share a few common symptoms. People with either illness often experience:
- a runny or stuffy nose
- body aches
- general fatigue
As a rule, flu symptoms are more severe than cold symptoms.
Another distinct difference between the two is how serious they are. Colds rarely cause other health conditions or problems. But the flu can lead to sinus and ear infections, pneumonia, and sepsis.
To determine whether your symptoms are from a cold or from the flu, you need to see your doctor. Your doctor will run tests that can help determine what’s behind your symptoms.
If your doctor diagnoses a cold, you’ll only need to treat your symptoms until the virus has run its course. These treatments can include using over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications, staying hydrated, and getting plenty of rest.
Taking an OTC flu medicine early in the virus’ cycle may also help. Rest and hydration are also beneficial for people with the flu. Much like the common cold, the flu just needs time to work its way through your body.
What are the symptoms of the flu?
Common symptoms of the flu include:
Fever: The flu almost always causes an increase in your body temperature. This is also known as a fever. Most flu-related fevers range from a low-grade fever around 100°F (37.8°C) to as high as 104°F (40°C). Although alarming, it’s not uncommon for young children to have higher fevers than adults. If you suspect your child has the flu, see your doctor.
You may feel “feverish” when you have an elevated temperature. Symptoms include chills, sweats, or being cold despite your body’s high temperature. Most fevers last for less than one week, usually around three to four days.
Cough: A dry, persistent cough is common with the flu. The cough may worsen, becoming uncomfortable and painful. You may also experience shortness of breath or chest discomfort during this time. Many flu-related coughs can last for about two weeks.
Muscle aches: These flu-related muscle pains are most common in your neck, back, arms, and legs. They can often be severe, making it difficult to move even when trying to perform basic tasks.
Headache: Your first symptom of the flu may be a severe headache. Sometimes eye symptoms, including light and sound sensitivity, go along with your headache.
Fatigue: Feeling tired is a not-so-obvious symptom of the flu. Feeling generally unwell can be a sign of many conditions. These feelings of tiredness and fatigue may come on fast and be difficult to overcome.
How long does the flu last?
Most people will recover from the flu in about one week. But it may take several more days for you to feel back to your usual self. It’s not uncommon for you to feel tired for several days after your flu symptoms have subsided.
It’s important you stay home from school or work until you haven’t had a fever for at least 24 hours. This is without taking fever-reducing medications. If you have the flu, you’re contagious a day before your symptoms appear and up to five to seven days afterward.
When is flu season?
The main flu season stretches from late October to March. Cases of the flu peak during February, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But you can get the flu at any time of the year.
You’re more likely to get sick during the fall and winter months. This is because you’re spending more time in close quarters with other people. And because you’re exposed to lots of different illnesses.
You’re more likely to catch the flu if you already have a different infection. This is because other infections can weaken your immune system and make you more vulnerable to new ones.
Flu symptoms in adults.
Flu-related fever that appears in adults and can be severe. For many adults, a sudden high fever is the earliest symptom of a flu infection.
Adults rarely spike a fever unless they have a serious infection. The flu virus causes an abrupt high temperature that’s greater than 100°F (37.8°C).
Other viral infections, like a cold, may cause low-grade fevers.
Beyond this, children and adults share many of the same symptoms. Some people may experience one or several symptoms more than another person. Each person’s influenza infection will be different.
What’s the incubation period for the flu?
The typical incubation period for the flu is one to four days. Incubation refers to the period during which the virus is in your body and developing. During this time, you may not show any symptoms of the virus. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t contagious. Many people are capable of spreading the virus with others a day before symptoms appear.
The millions of tiny droplets produced when we sneeze, cough, or talk spreads the flu virus. These droplets enter your body through your nose, mouth, or eyes. You can also pick up the flu by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes.
Is there such a thing as the “24-hour flu”?
The “24-hour flu” is a common infection that has nothing to do with influenza, despite sharing a name. The 24-hour flu is caused by a family of viruses called norovirus.
The symptoms of a norovirus infection include:
These symptoms occur in the gastrointestinal system. That’s why the 24-hour flu is sometimes called a “stomach flu.” Although it’s called the “24-hour flu,” you may be ill up to three days.
Influenza (or the flu) is a respiratory illness. It causes symptoms in the respiratory system.
Symptoms of influenza include:
The symptoms of the two are different. Some people with the flu may experience nausea and vomiting while they’re sick. But these symptoms aren’t as common.
Is the flu contagious?
If you have the flu, you’re contagious. Many people are contagious and can spread the virus as early as a day before they show symptoms. In other words, you may be sharing the virus before you even realize that you’re sick.
You may still be contagious five to seven days after your symptoms appear. Young children are often contagious for more than seven days after symptoms first appear. People who have a weak immune system may experience the virus symptoms longer, too.
If you have the flu, stay home. Do your part to prevent the spread of the virus to other people. If you’re diagnosed, alert anyone you came into contact with in the day before your symptoms appeared.
What is the flu?
Influenza or “the flu” is a common, infectious virus spread by infected droplets that enter another person’s body. From there, the virus takes hold and begins to develop.
Each year, the flu spreads across the United States. Winter is the flu’s primary season, with a peak in February. But you can be infected with the flu any time of the year.
Many strains of the flu exist. Doctors and researchers determine which strains of the virus will be most common each year. Those strains are then used to produce vaccines. A flu vaccine is one of the easiest and most effective ways to prevent a flu infection.
Is there medication for the flu?
Medications called “antiviral” drugs can treat the flu. These medications are available by prescription only. You must visit a doctor or healthcare provider to receive a prescription. You can’t buy these medicines over the counter at a pharmacy.
Antiviral medications used to treat the flu can help ease the symptoms. They can also shorten the length of the flu by a day or two. Taking antiviral medications may help if you get the flu. But these medications also have side effects.
Antiviral medications are important for people at high risk for developing complications from the flu.
People in this high-risk category include:
children under age 5.
adults over age 65.
women who are pregnant.
people with chronic medical conditions that weaken their immune systems.
Research suggests antiviral medications work best if you take them within 48 hours of having symptoms. If you miss that window, don’t worry. You may still see a benefit from taking the medicine later. This is especially true if you’re at high risk or are ill. Taking antiviral medications may help protect you against flu complications. These include pneumonia and other infections.
Early symptoms of the flu.
Symptoms of the flu appear quickly. This sudden onset of symptoms is often the flu’s first hallmark. Similar illnesses, such as a cold, take several days for symptoms to emerge.
Another common early symptom of the flu is the breadth of pain. People with the flu report feeling uncomfortable all over their body as an early symptom.
You may feel as if you’ve been “hit by a truck.” Getting out of bed may prove to be difficult and slow. This feeling may be an early symptom of the flu.
After this, other symptoms of the flu may begin appearing, making it obvious you have the virus.
Are there natural flu remedies?
If left untreated, the typical flu often goes away in about one week. During that time, you have several treatment options for making symptoms easier to handle.
Prescription antiviral medicines can reduce the severity of the infection. It can also shorten its duration. Some OTC treatments can ease the symptoms of the infection. Even some natural flu remedies may be helpful for easing symptoms.
Some people may find natural flu remedies to be helpful. Medical research supports some treatments that include:
Soup: Warm chicken soup works on many levels as a flu remedy. The warm liquid can help ease sore throats and provide hydration and electrolytes. Studies have shown it can also change the movement of white blood cells in your body. This decreases inflammation.
Honey: A lot of “natural” cough and cold medicines contain honey. This is because it has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. Honey is also an effective cough suppressant. Add some to your tea or eat a small spoonful if you’re trying to stop a coughing fit.
Ginger: Drop a few slices of ginger into your tea or a glass of warm water, and sip. This root has healing properties that can ease a sore throat and suppress a cough. It can also help with nausea.
Probiotics: Increase the good bacteria in your gut while your body is fighting an infection. A healthy gut microbiome can boost your immune system, prevent new infections, and promote healing.
Of course, rest is also an important part of recovering from a flu infection. Your body is fighting hard against the infection. It’s wise for you to stop, rest, and get more sleep so your immune system can fight back against the infection.
Options for over-the-counter (OTC) flu medicine.
OTC medicines can help relieve symptoms of the flu, but they won’t treat it. If you have the flu and are looking for symptom relief, consider these medicines:
Decongestants: Nasal decongestants help break up mucus in your sinuses. This will allow you to blow your nose. Decongestants come in several forms. These include nasal decongestants that are inhaled and oral (pill) decongestants.
Cough suppressants: Coughing, especially at night, is a common flu symptom. OTC cough medicines can ease or suppress your cough reflex. Cough drops or lozenges can soothe a sore throat and suppress coughing.
Expectorants: This type of medication may help you cough up phlegm if you have a lot of mucus or congestion in your chest.
Antihistamines: This type of medication is in cold and allergy medicines. It may not be helpful for everyone. But it can relieve watery eyes, stuffy nose, and sinus headaches if allergies are also causing your symptoms.
OTC “flu medicines” often contain several of these types of medicines in one pill. If you take one of these combination medications, avoid taking other medicine with it. This will make sure you don’t take too much of one type of medicine.
What causes the flu?
The flu is a virus that’s shared in several ways. First, you can pick up the virus from being near a person who has the flu and sneezes, coughs, or talks.
The virus can also live on inanimate objects for two to eight hours. If someone with the virus touched a common surface like a door handle or a keyboard, and you touch the same surface, you could get the virus. Once you have the virus on your hand, it can enter your body by touching your mouth, eyes, or nose.
You can vaccinate against the flu. An annual flu vaccine helps your body prepare for exposure to the virus. But flu viruses are morphing and changing. That’s why you need the flu shot every year. A flu shot helps you by activating your immune system to make antibodies against particular strains of the virus. Antibodies are what prevent infections.
It’s possible to get the flu after receiving the flu shot if you come into contact with other strains of the virus. Even then, it’s likely your symptoms will be much less severe than if you hadn’t had the vaccine at all. This is due to cross-protection. This means that different strains share common elements. And that allows the flu vaccine to work against them, too.
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