Recently, I diagnosed the first case of influenza virus that WMC clinic has seen this winter. By the time this publishes, the Bighorn Basin will likely be seeing flu season hit full stride. As a local physician, I have witnessed a lot of misunderstanding about what the influenza virus is and what can be done about it. This article is an attempt to clarify a sometimes confusing topic.
First of all, the word "flu" is often used in a generic sense to mean any sort of winter illness. People often call cold symptoms "the flu," or they refer to the symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea as the "stomach flu." In this case, they’re using "flu" to indicate a general viral infection. However, when physicians talk about the flu, we are referring to a specific respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus.
Why is that distinction important? Influenza virus causes seasonal epidemics, is highly contagious, and causes predominantly respiratory and systemic symptoms. For example, a stomach virus may cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea; these also may be present in a true influenza infection, but typically these symptoms are secondary. Likewise, a common cold may cause congestion, sore throat, productive cough, and low grade fevers, and yet not be the true flu.
The influenza virus is different, as it may cause all of those symptoms, plus the additional severe systemic symptoms of fever, chills and general malaise. I call it the "getting-hit-by-a-truck" sign: when you have the flu, you have respiratory symptoms plus you feel as if a beet truck just plowed you over—achy, feverish and sicker than a dog.
If you develop these symptoms within the next few months, you should contact your health care provider within the first twenty-four hours of onset. A simple, rapid test can be done to distinguish if your symptoms are caused by the influenza virus. If caught within the first two days, then a medication can be prescribed to lessen the duration and severity of your symptoms. Also, medication can be prescribed for household contacts to help prevent them from contracting influenza.
If you miss that window of opportunity at the onset of symptoms, then most likely you will need to wait seven to fourteen days for your body’s immune system to get the upper hand and eradicate the virus and its symptoms on its own. At this point, resting for several days in a row, drinking lots of fluids, and controlling the symptoms with home remedies and over-the-counter medications is your best bet for relief and a rapid resolution of symptoms. Either ibuprofen or acetaminophen are quite good at reducing the achiness and fever of that come with the flu. A variety of cough and cold medicines may alleviate some of the respiratory complaints. Some steaming bowls of Mom’s chicken noodle soup may help as well.
The best treatment, of course, is prevention. Influenza is spread by contact with an infected person’s respiratory droplets, so frequent handwashing, hand sanitizing, avoiding being coughed upon, and not sharing cups or utensils can help to prevent transmission. I also highly recommend the influenza vaccine to everyone over the age of six months, but particularly to:
- Young children aged six months to five years
- Pregnant women
- People over age fifty
- Healthcare workers
- People with other chronic medical or respiratory problems
- . . . and anyone living or working with any of the above! (Basically, all of us.)
If you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet, there is still time, although it may not have the full chance to gear up your body’s immune defenses prior to the onset of flu season, as this usually takes two to four weeks.
Hopefully, I am wrong and the flu season will leave the Bighorn Basin alone this winter. But if it hits as expected, then at least you will have some practical knowledge of what influenza is and what you can do about it. Feel free to call our clinic with further questions.
Now, go wash your hands!