Dorothea Watson, 72, had a really bad cold last winter and when she went to the doctor, she insisted she had the flu. Even after an internist assured Dorothea that she just had a common cold, the Charlotte, N.C. resident argued that he was dead wrong. She was sure that her self-diagnosis was more accurate. “I know I had the flu because I felt so bad, I was coughing and my doctor does not know everything. I know my body best,” said the retired postal worker.
We talk about the flu all the time during those frigid months. It seems many folks are quick to slap the flu label on just about every sniffle. How many of us really know what the flu is and how to stay healthy during flu season?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), last year, the flu season was brutal resulting in 80,000 deaths from flu complications and 900,000 hospitalizations.
The dominant flu strain last year was influenza type A or H3N2 which medical experts contend was the worst epidemic in 40 years. Those over the age of 65 are especially susceptible to influenza infection since the immune system becomes weaker with age.
In addition, older folks are also more susceptible to disability following a battle with the flu, especially if they are hospitalized. Seniors are also prone to falls during recovery from influenza infection because it also hinders walking and leg strength and this can lead to the need for a cane or walker, limiting mobility and independence.
What is the flu?
Flu season can begin as early as September and last as late as May. It is a respiratory illness that is extremely contagious and caused by one of three different viruses—Influenza A, B or C.
Influenza A is seasonal and can have different subtypes and strains that can lead to the most severe epidemics. The virus can infect animals and wild birds that act as hosts for this virus.
Influenza B virus is also seasonal but has fewer strains than A. It almost exclusively infects humans and is less common than influenza A.
Influenza C is also found in humans and does not make people gravely ill or cause epidemics.
The illness can run the gamut from mild to severe and even death in some circumstances. The flu virus can spread by inhaling airborne droplets of saliva that quickly spread when someone speaks, coughs or sneezes and can survive in the air for several hours. Although not too common, the virus is also transmitted, via fingers, by touching an object like a door handle, counter, keyboard, phone, that has the virus on it and then, touching the eyes, nose, and mouth which are pathways for the virus to enter the body.
The flu virus survives less on porous surfaces like clothing, paper, and tissue, experts say. A University Hospital of Geneva study found flu viruses on paper money survived up to 72 hours, but when mixed with human mucus, one Type A strain remained active for 17 days.
When are you contagious?
You can be a flu time bomb even before you know you’re sick! The virus can spread to others during its initial 3 to 4 days. Someone who is healthy can infect others with the flu one whole day before they are actually symptomatic, and up to 7 days after they are stricken. Those folks who have weakened immune systems and young children can continue to infect others for longer periods of time.
What are the flu symptoms?
Folks tend to confuse the common cold and flu ALL the time because of some similarities they share such as a runny/stuffy nose, cough, and throat irritation. However, the following symptoms are predominantly flu-related:
Exhaustion, lack of energy (can go on for weeks)
Cold sweats and shivers
Lack of appetite
Nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea
Coughing with thick yellow/green mucus
In older adults, and in people who have chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma or heart issues, a bout with the flu can result in hospitalization for them.
When to seek emergency care for the flu
If you feel your flu symptoms have taken a turn for the worst, DO NOT hesitate to seek emergency care at your nearest hospital; better safe than sorry! Signs that you need immediate care for the flu:
Chest or abdominal pain
Inability to interact or constant drowsiness
Swelling in the mouth or throat
What are the flu treatment options?
The flu is caused by a virus and antibiotics will not get rid of it! Many people are under the impression that a prescribed antibiotic will make them feel better sooner than later but this is not the case. If, however, a bacterial illness developed from the flu, an antibiotic can then be prescribed. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), people infected with the flu recover within one to two weeks without requiring medical treatment.
Upon examination, a doctor may prescribe an antiviral medicine like oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza) to help with flu symptoms in some cases. Over the counter pain and fever-reducers found in acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) are also safe for many adults if taken as directed by a physician.
You can also treat flu symptoms by doing the following:
Getting plenty of rest/sleep
Drinking lots of fluids like orange juice, herbal teas with lemon, water
Before you take any OTC flu medications, please have a conversation with your doctor about them as some can interfere with prescription drugs. They can also cause issues in people with chronic conditions.
Getting vaccinated against the flu
First of all getting vaccinated every year to protect against the flu virus has been shown to have many benefits including the risk reduction of flu illnesses, hospitalizations and even flu-related death in children. You can still get the flu even though you’ve been vaccinated but the bout will be less severe.
Many Blacks reportedly do not get the flu shot because they just don’t trust the vaccine. The CDC states that only 41 percent of Blacks get vaccinated compared to about 50 percent of whites.
Flu vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination. These antibodies provide protection against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine. Vaccination to prevent influenza is particularly important for people who are at high risk of serious complications from influenza.
Even though the vaccines contain the flu viruses, they are attenuated (weakened), so that they will not cause influenza illness. The viruses cannot infect the lungs or other areas where warmer temperatures exist.
Getting vaccinated before the flu begins its destructive path is best! It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies that protect against flu to develop in the body. The CDC recommends that people get a flu vaccine by the end of October. Getting vaccinated later, however, can still offer protection throughout the flu season, even into January or later.
If you do not have a regular doctor who can provide you with a flu vaccination, you can visit a drugstore, health department, urgent care clinic, or even some employers and schools are offering them. The CDC has a health map vaccine finder where you can pinpoint a location nearest you to get vaccinated– https://vaccinefinder.org/.
Scientists at the University of Birmingham have recently discovered that the flu vaccine is four times more effective if given in the morning. Giving patients, especially those over age 65, a vaccination between the hours of 9 am and 11 am boosted antibodies to four times the levels of those patients who had shots between 3 pm and 5 pm. It is thought that the immune system is more active and responsive in the morning.
The side effects after receiving a vaccination against influenza are minor and short-term:
Soreness or redness at injection site
What about the inhaled flu mist?
Regarding the inhaled flu mist that protects against influenza, according to the CDC, this season they will contain four flu viruses: an influenza A (H1N1) virus, an influenza A (H3N2) virus and two influenza B viruses.
The inhaled mist or spray is only recommended for those ages 2 to 49 and NOT for adults 50 and over! People with compromised, weakened immune systems are also not candidates to receive the nasal vaccination.
Steps to take to remain healthy
How can you keep yourself healthy during flu season? Just follow these steps and keep your fingers crossed:
Wash hands often. Scrub your hands for about 20 seconds to keep germs away, and make sure to have alcohol-based sanitizer handy at all times
Don’t cough or sneeze into your hands. Use your upper arm instead when you sneeze; if you use a tissue dispose of it quickly then wash your hands
Don’t touch your face. Keep your germy hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth
Keep hydrated. Your urine should be clear, but if it’s yellow, you need more water!
Exercise. Staying active helps to increase the body’s natural virus-killing cells
Eat yogurt every day. Some studies have shown that eating a daily cup of yogurt can reduce susceptibility to influenza by 25 percent
Don’t smoke. Smokers tend to get more severe and more frequent colds and flu
Cut alcohol consumption. Liquor tends to dehydrate the body
Learn to relax. Relaxation increases interleukins, leaders in the immune system response against cold and flu viruses, to increase in the bloodstream