Guess what… flu season is already BACK!
I know that it is not in full swing, but we are already seeing cases of confirmed flu in the emergency room at Elite Care in Rice Village. It seems to be coming earlier and earlier each year. In fact, there are some communities and regions of the world where flu can occur year-round. If you recently visited the tropics you might be at risk of this. And I have seen communities where factory workers seem to suffer from this ailment year-round!
Why do we care about the flu?
Every year we see the effects of the flu in the emergency room. Sometimes it is a little more than a severe cold, but sometimes it has devastating consequences. Every year millions are infected and tens of thousands die. And some of our most vulnerable patients, including children and the elderly, are the ones who are hit the hardest.
Although influenza is not entirely preventable, there are so many things that can be done to drastically reduce the risk of catching the flu and also suffering the potential complications of this infection. Influenza infection can severely worsen any other chronic condition that you suffer from. And it can lead to both viral and secondary bacterial pneumonia, both known to have potentially serious and fatal consequences.
What are the typical symptoms of the flu?
Most people who contract the flu usually present with the usual symptoms of an upper respiratory infection such as fever, cough,
What is the incubation period and how long am I contagious?
After contracting the flu, it usually takes a couple of days before symptoms appear. Just because you have been in contact with someone who either has confirmed flu or symptoms to suggest that they have the flu, you are not guaranteed to contract the illness. Only a certain percentage of people, even close household contacts, will go on to develop clinical signs of the flu. Once you get the flu, it can be contagious for almost a week. Certain patients such as the very young, the elderly, and those with suppressed immune systems can be contagious for even longer. If you work or live in a high risk environment where you can spread the flu to high risk or large numbers of people (such as health care workers, factory workers and teachers), definitely give yourself a full week before potentially infecting others and turning an isolated case into an epidemic.
Who is at higher risk of complications of the flu?
We consider many different patient factors to be red flags, or high-risk criteria for patients who could suffer complications from the flu. The most common ones that we worry about are children under 5 (especially under 2 years of age), adults older than 65, women who are pregnant or were recently pregnant, those who live in nursing homes, Native Americans, and patients who suffer from chronic illness including lung disease, other organ disease, a weakened immune system, blood disorders, and obesity.
Do I really need to deal with vaccination? Can I skip a year?
You might hear a lot of people talking about how they never want a flu shot and that they would never get one. This raises the question of why physicians and healthcare workers are so passionate about annual flu vaccinations. Like other infections such as polio and measles, some of it relates to “herd immunity”, the principal that with universal vaccinations we can eradicate an infection altogether. There has been some evidence to suggest a decreased prevalence of flu in areas of high vaccinations, but nothing close to eradication. The likely more personal reasons are that healthcare workers like me see the devastating effects of flu every year.
Flu is predictable in the sense that it comes like clockwork every year. And when it does, the spread of it to those at highest risk can suffer fatal consequences of the complications of infection. Even if you think that you can handle the effects of influenza, how about your loved ones who are pregnant, immunocompromised, have underlying lung disease, are very young or elderly, or are fragile due to the illnesses that they chronically battle. These and many other categories of individuals are the ones at the highest risk when exposed to flu. But even the healthiest members of society, those without any risk factors, can suffer the devastating effects of flu. Last year I took care of a patient who was worried about flu because her young, healthy husband was in the ICU on life support battling for his life in multi-system organ failure due to influenza.
How Flu Vaccines Work
Some years the developers of the flu vaccines do a better job than others matching the protective effects of the medicine to the strains of flu causing the most harm. But even on the worst years, it is thought that the impact of flu would have been even worse if our immune systems were not stimulated and prepared to start attacking the influenza virus.
Although some vaccines create immunity for many years, we know that the benefits of the influenza vaccine start to significantly drop in less than a year and that annual revaccination is critical.
There are several formulations of the flu vaccine. Your doctor will determine with you the best choice of vaccine. Some years the vaccine can safely and effectively be given either as a shot or an intranasal spray. You might have some soreness at the injection site and some systemic symptoms such as muscle aches or a low-grade fever due to your immune system reacting to the vaccination, but you cannot contract the flu from the vaccination.
It does take up to two weeks for the vaccination to take effect, so if you are unfortunate enough to be exposed to flu early after the vaccine, you might suffer the full impact of the illness. And some years, the vaccine will not prevent you from contracting the flu entirely, but it will make your symptoms less severe. Plus, you should be less infectious for a shorter period of time.
What else can I do to try and avoid the flu?
Boosting your immune system by eating a well-balanced diet full of lots of whole fruits and vegetables is a great idea both during flu season and throughout the year. Make sure that you are well rested and try to minimize your stress. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer when you are in areas where you might come in contact with those who have the flu. And always keep some extra distance for at least 5-7 days from individuals who you know to have the flu.
What do I need to do if I think that I have caught the flu?
What if you feel lousy and think that you have the flu? What should you do about it? That is a very complex question because the answer depends on how severe your symptoms are, what your level of health is, whether or not you have any of the red flags that we worry could place you at risk to developing complications of flu, whether you are in close contact with people who have red flags, and whether your job or lifestyle could make you a threat to public safety if you are not treated. When answering all of these questions to help decide what to do, we want to make decisions quickly because time is the enemy.
Although vaccines are used to prevent contracting infections, there are anti-viral medications (antibiotics treat bacteria, and anti-virals treat viruses) that in the right situation could decrease your symptoms, the risk of complications, and the duration of time that you are contagious. But we know that the sooner you initiate treatment with these medications, the better they will work.
What tests are available to see if I have the flu versus the common cold?
Sometimes testing will be needed to determine if treatment is a good idea. Other times the decision can be made just based on your symptoms and risks. When testing is performed there are two levels of tests. The rapid flu test has low sensitivity and a lot of false negatives. The higher-level tests include PCR and molecular testing. PCR is rarely useful since it takes longer to get results, but it is much more sensitive than the rapid flu test. Molecular testing is back within an hour, it is sensitivelike PCR, and we have it at Elite Care should that information be important to help determine the course of treatment you and your doctor decide on.
I know that this is a ton of information but at Elite Care we not only want to treat your illness, but we want you to be better informed of illnesses and the options for treatment. We do this not only so that we can make joint decisions with you that you are comfortable with, but also so that when you are back at home recuperating, you know what is expected and what is not typical. Being better informed you will be even quicker to recognize a potential complication, something that is crucial to adjusting treatment and management earlier as opposed to later.
We are ready 24/7 to see you, make an accurate and timely diagnosis (something very few emergency rooms are able to do since they do not have molecular testing equipment), and take whatever steps are necessary to get you feeling better faster.