Are you out of commission with body aches, fevers, chills, and fatigue? You may be sick with the flu! The flu (otherwise known as influenza) is a virus that is spread through respiratory droplets such as coughing, sneezing, and blowing your nose. It typically has a seasonal pattern and is seen most often in the winter months but can be seen throughout the entire year in warm or tropical environments. There are many different subtypes or strains of the flu virus but the ones that infect humans most often are Flu A and Flu B.
Flu most commonly presents with sudden onset of fevers, chills, body aches, fatigue, decreased appetite, sneezing, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, and cough. Sometimes the flu can cause symptoms such as abdominal cramping, diarrhea, and vomiting but these symptoms are less common. Often people will only have a few of the above listed symptoms. When a person comes in contact with the flu virus it usually takes about 24-48 hours until the symptoms present. This window of time is known as the incubation period.
The flu is commonly diagnosed based on presenting symptoms and physical exam findings. However, it can also be diagnosed using a flu swab which is a long cotton q-tip that is used to collect mucus from the nose. The rapid flu test is run in the clinic and takes about 15 minutes. After the test is completed, you will receive a positive or negative result.
As mentioned before, the flu is a viral infection and not a bacterial infection. Therefore, no antibiotics are indicated for the initial treatment of flu. If you see a doctor within the first 48 hours of your symptoms starting and you happen to test positive for the flu, there is a medication called Tamiflu that can be started. This medication is an antiviral that is designed to shorten the duration of flu symptoms. Other less often used antiviral medications include Relenza, Rapivab, and Xofluza. The caveat is that studies show no improvement if an antiviral medication is started after 48 hours of symptom onset. So, if you have been sick for more than 48 hours, you will likely not be prescribed this medication. Just like any other virus, flu will improve and simply run its course without any prescribed medications. The most important thing is to treat the symptoms of the flu so that you are more comfortable while you wait for it to resolve. Common medications that are used include Tylenol or Ibuprofen for fevers and body aches. Sometimes over the counter cold and flu medication can provide some relief. The flu typically lasts 3-7 days but can sometimes persist even longer than a week. Young children and elderly people typically have more severe presentations of the flu and often take a longer time to recover. These age groups are also more susceptible to complications such as pneumonia and dehydration.
The best way to prevent getting the flu or any other viral illness is by practicing good hand hygiene. Make sure to wash your hands frequently throughout the day with both soap and water to stop the spread of germs. It is also important to be mindful when you cough and sneeze. Make sure you cover your mouth and avoid going into public if you are feeling ill. The flu shot is another great way to reduce your chances of getting the flu. Flu shots are offered at many pharmacies and clinics on an annual basis. The flu vaccine changes annually so it is recommended to get the updated vaccine every year before flu season starts (typically from September-November). Although the flu vaccine will not protect you from every strain of the flu virus, it has been found to decrease the severity of your flu symptoms if you do happen to catch the virus.
Melissa Drennen, Physician Assistant at Bayside Urgent Care Center