The United States is currently suffering from severe cases of seasonal influenza, with many deaths being reported across the country. More and more citizens are increasingly concerned that they will be directly impacted by the continued spread of this infectious virus.
This early and aggressive start to the flu season has been described as an “epidemic”, so you shouldn’t wait to take steps to protect yourself and your loved ones from infection. The sooner you ready yourself for seasonal influenza, also known as the flu, the better off you and your family will be when the illness spreads through your community.
This special alert is focused on helping you understand seasonal influenza, the steps you can take to maintain your health at work and at home, and methods for weathering the sickness should you or a loved one become infected. Knowledge and preparation are your best tools to fight the flu, and these resources will help you make smart decisions to keep you out of bed and on your feet.
What is influenza?
Influenza is a viral respiratory infection of the nose, throat and lungs that ranks as one of the most severe illnesses of the winter season (flu season is generally December through March). It is not the same as the “stomach flu”. An estimated 10 to 20 percent of the population get influenza every year.
Usually, influenza is not considered to be life threatening for healthy adults. However, it can lead to very serious complications such as pneumonia and bronchitis, especially in people over age 65, young children and those with chronic illnesses.
This year’s prevalent strain, called Influenza A H3N2, is particularly hazardous to children and people older than 65 years, experts say.
What are the causes?
Influenza is caused by one or more viruses. Viruses are tiny organisms or small infectious agents that reproduce inside the living cells of other organisms. Viruses cannot multiply on their own, but need to enter a human or animal host by taking over cells to help them grow. Viruses are highly contagious and spread when an infected person touches or shakes hands with another person, sneezes and coughs without covering their mouth or touches objects that other people may touch, such as doorknobs.
What are the symptoms?
Influenza symptoms differ from those of a cold. Flu symptoms are usually more serious and leave you lying flat on your back. Unlike the stomach flu, influenza usually does not cause vomiting or diarrhea.
Flu symptoms include:
Fever, often 102 to 104 F (it may last up to seven days)
Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
Body/muscle aches, which may be severe
Stomach symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea can also occur, but are more common in children than adults
Dry cough (sometimes severe)
Mildly stuffy or runny nose and sore throat
What are the treatment options?
Because the flu is a viral infection, it cannot be treated with antibiotics. Antiviral medications that may reduce the severity of and shorten the length of the flu, if given within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, are available.
Two antiviral medications have been approved for use in preventing the flu, but these should not be considered replacements for annual flu vaccination. That is because these medications are not helpful in treating the complications that may results from influenza, and each medication has a different set of side effects. You should discuss these with your doctor before taking one of the medications.
What are the self-care steps for influenza?
When you have the flu, try these steps to help you feel more comfortable:
Stay home and get the rest you need. It is one of the best ways to deal with influenza, and it keeps you from spreading the illness to other people.
Drink extra fluids. Warm fluids are soothing, especially if your throat is irritated. Drinking adequate fluids is important to prevent dehydration when you have a fever.
To relieve nasal congestion, sleep with your head elevated. For adults, over-the-counter decongestants can be used. Be sure to follow the recommended dosage and precautions. If you have high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary artery disease, thyroid disease or are pregnant, talk to your doctor before using decongestants.
Treat your headache, sore muscles and fever with aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Do not give aspirin to anyone under the age of 20 because of the risk of Reye syndrome.
Getting immunized against the flu (either a shot or the live nasal vaccine) is the best way to protect yourself from influenza. Other steps you can take to protect yourself and prevent the spread of the disease include:
Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 15 to 30 seconds.
Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth. If flu germs get on your hands, you can infect yourself by rubbing your eyes or touching your nose or mouth.
Wash your hands after you’ve handled objects such as doorknobs, telephones and toys.
Wash your hands if you have the flu to avoid infecting others.
Keep a distance from people who are coughing and sneezing.
Limit the time you stay in the same room with a sick person.
Avoid exposure to the virus—crowds of people may mean a lot of flu virus in the air. If you are sick, stay home and get the rest you need.
Don’t share your personal items, including towels, washcloths, silverware, cups, glasses, straws, razors and toothbrushes.
Keep up your resistance to infection with a good diet, plenty of rest and regular exercise.
Do flu shots make a difference?
Typically, the influenza vaccine is effective in preventing the flu for about 70 percent of people. Health care professionals recommend that everyone should get a flu shot annually because the virus that causes influenza may change from year to year and protection decreases over 12 months. The vaccine does not contain the live virus, so you cannot get the flu from it. The best time to get an influenza vaccine is between October and mid-November, but it can be given until the flu season (December through March) is over.
Most people have no side effects from receiving the vaccine. Redness or swelling at the injection site may occur for one or two days. Occasionally, fever and muscle aches may also be present.
In regard to the effectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, “Increasing the risk of a severe flu season is the finding that roughly half of the H3N2 viruses analyzed are drift variants: viruses with antigenic or genetic changes that make them different from that season’s vaccine virus. This means the vaccine’s ability to protect against those viruses may be reduced, although vaccinated people may have a milder illness if they do become infected.”
Who should get a flu shot?
Anyone age 50 or older
Women who will be in their second or third trimester of pregnancy during flu season
People of all ages with heart or lung disease (including asthma), diabetes, kidney disorders, anemia or an immune deficiency caused by cancer treatment, steroids (prednisone) or human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS)
Children 6 to 23 months old
Anyone who comes in close contact with the people listed above
Anyone who wants to reduce the chance of catching the flu
Health care workers
People who should not get a flu shot include:
Anyone with a serious allergy to chicken eggs
Anyone who has had a serious reaction to a previous dose of influenza vaccine
People who are allergic to thimerosal, a preservative used in the vaccine
People with a history of Guillain-Barre syndrome
Babies younger than 6 months
What are some simple ways to keep the flu away?
You can avoid the flu this season by taking one simple step: get a flu vaccination.
Unfortunately, some people think that getting a flu shot is too much trouble or costs too much. Or they swear that a flu immunization will make them sick or more likely to catch the flu or colds.
Influenza is caused by one of several strains of influenza viruses (type A or B) that infect the nose, throat and lungs, making life miserable for a week or two for many people—and deadly for some.
Your best defense against the flu is to get immunized. Depending on your age, you can do that in one of two ways:
With a flu shot, given with a needle. This form of the vaccine contains killed virus and is approved for all people over the age of 6 months.
With a nasal-spray vaccine. This form contains live, weakened flu viruses that cannot cause the flu. This form is approved for healthy, non-pregnant people ages 5 to 49 years.
A flu vaccination is most important for children 6 months and older, adults ages 50 and older, anyone with a chronic disease, anyone who lives in a nursing home or other long-term care site, health care workers and people who are in frequent contact with the elderly or chronically ill. The CDC says children 8 years old and younger who are immunized for the first time should get two full doses of vaccine, one month apart.
Doctors also advise flu shots for women who plan to be pregnant during flu season. Flu shots are okay for breastfeeding mothers, the CDC says.
Even if you don't fall into one of the above groups, you are still a candidate for the vaccine if you want to avoid the flu.
Talk to your doctor first
Some people should not be vaccinated for the flu before talking to their health care provider, the CDC says. Talk to your doctor if:
You have a severe allergy to chicken eggs.
You have had a severe reaction to a flu immunization in the past.
You developed Guillain-Barre syndrome within six weeks of a previous flu immunization.
Children younger than 6 months of age should not be immunized against the flu because the flu vaccines have not been approved for that age group.
If you are ill with a moderate or severe illness that includes a fever, you should wait to get vaccinated until your symptoms lessen, the CDC says.
Other prevention steps
Flu viruses are spread by contact with droplets sneezed or coughed from an infected person. Inhaling the droplets is the most common route to getting the flu, but many people also become infected by touching objects the droplets have landed on. You can spread the virus to others before you feel sick; the CDC says you are infectious one day before symptoms begin and up to five days afterward.
You help protect yourself against the flu by doing simple things like washing your hands before eating and not putting your hands near your face or in your mouth. You don't need special cleansers when washing your hands; washing for 15 to 20 seconds with ordinary soap works fine. If someone in your family has the flu, keep surfaces clean of the virus by wiping them with a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water.
Another effective means of flu prevention is humidity. The flu bug exists in higher quantities in dry nasal and oral passages, which is one reason why flu epidemics occur in dry winter months. By raising the humidity in your workplace and at home to keep your nasal passages and mouth moist, your body will be better able to flush out the flu bug.
Rooting out rumors
Don't believe the rumor that a flu shot can give you even a mild case of influenza. It is impossible. Neither form of the vaccine—by injection or nasal spray—contains a form of the flu virus that can give you influenza. The injected form of the vaccine is made from particles of dead flu virus cells, and the nasal spray contains live viruses that have been damaged so they can't cause a major infection.
When you are injected with the flu vaccine, your body reacts as if it has been infected with the actual living virus and makes antibodies that provide immunity against the real virus. These antibodies remain at high levels for only six to nine months. These waning antibody levels are one reason why you need to be revaccinated each year.
However, the main reason you should be revaccinated yearly is that the flu virus is constantly changing and evolving into new strains. Each year the CDC attempts to predict which flu strain will be predominant. The CDC then works with vaccine manufacturers to produce the specific vaccine that will combat the predicted strain.
If you are concerned about the cost of a flu immunization, check with your local health department for locations in your area where free flu shots are given.
Treating yourself at home
When you are exposed to the flu, the virus incubates for three to five days before symptoms begin. You probably have the flu if you come down with a high fever, sore throat, muscle aches and a cough (usually dry). The symptoms in children may also include vomiting, diarrhea and ear infections. The flu is usually self-treatable, but it has to run its course. You can treat symptoms by getting bed rest, drinking plenty of fluids, taking acetaminophen for aches and pains and using a humidifier to keep nasal passages moist.
Expect the flu to last about five days, which is the time it takes your body to produce the antibodies that finally beat the infection. After that time, you will be protected from that strain of influenza for the rest of the season. Some people continue to feel ill and cough for more than two weeks after they initially display symptoms. In some cases, the flu can make health conditions such as asthma or diabetes worse or lead to complications such as bacterial pneumonia. Adults older than 65 and people with chronic health conditions have the greatest risk for complications from the flu, the CDC says.
Four prescription drugs are available to treat the flu—amantadine, rimantadine, zanamiyir and oseltamivir—but these must be taken within the first two days of illness to be effective, the CDC says. They can reduce the length of time flu symptoms are present. These medications are usually used in hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions where people are at high risk for complications of the flu. Talk to your health care provider if you think you should take one of these medications; they are not meant to be a substitute for vaccination.
A cold versus the flu: What’s the difference?
The following are symptoms of both colds and the flu:
Runny nose and sneezing
Overall sick feeling
Despite the few similarities, the flu is more likely to lead to pneumonia. For this reason, you need to know if you have a cold or the flu. A cold does not typically cause high fever, but the flu can. For reference, a fever above 101 degrees is usually considered high. Also, a stuffy nose is probably a sign of a cold rather than the flu. Overall, cold symptoms are milder and do not last as long as flu symptoms.
Cozy up to self-care
Because colds and the flu are caused by viruses, there is no cure; you just have to let them run their course. Pamper yourself by resting and drinking plenty of fluids. Talk with your doctor about over-the-counter medicines that may help ease your symptoms.
Know when to see your doctor
The following symptoms may indicate a problem more serious than a common cold or the flu:
Shortness of breath that comes with little or no exertion
Phlegm or mucus produced for two or more weeks
A cough that lasts two weeks or produces blood
A persistent cough with a fever, for instance, could be a sign of pneumonia. See your doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms or if any symptoms last longer than usual for a common cold or the flu. The earlier you catch problems, the more easily they can be treated.
The following vaccinations can protect you from the flu and pneumonia.
Influenza vaccine. You can protect yourself from the virus by getting a flu shot. It would be helpful if the people you spend time with also get immunized. Because strains of the virus that cause the flu change each year, you'll need to get the shot each year. It's best to get the flu shot in the fall before the flu season starts. The CDC recommends that the following people get an annual flu shot: anyone age 50 or older, residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities, adults and children older than 6 months who have chronic heart or lung conditions, adults and children older than 6 months who have metabolic diseases like diabetes, kidney disease or have a weakened immune system and women who will be more than three months pregnant during flu season. People who have a severe allergy to eggs should not get a flu shot.
Pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine. One of the most serious complications of the flu is pneumonia. You can protect yourself against the most common kind of pneumonia (pneumococcal) by getting a shot. Most people need the pneumonia shot only once in their lifetime. If you're not sure if you've gotten this shot, ask your doctor. The CDC recommends a pneumococcal vaccine for anyone age 65 or older and anyone who has a chronic disease or has a weakened immune system.
No vaccination can prevent the common cold. The best way to prevent the cold is to wash your hands often and avoid sharing cups, utensils and towels with people who are sick. It is also helpful to keep your body and mind in good shape by eating a healthy diet, managing your stress and getting enough sleep.
For questions or concerns about immunizations, contagious diseases, aches and pains, and general pediatric and adult health, Alicare Medical Management (AMM) offers Nurse HelpLine and Health Information Services under its Care Management programs, which are accredited pursuant to URAC’s Health Call Center Standards. Currently, over two million people have access to our Nurse HelpLine.
Experienced, registered nurses are available via a specially assigned toll-free telephone number for each client or group, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Using advanced clinical criteria, Nurse HelpLine staff can provide health information and education to patients and their families. Telephone triage and health care counseling assesses health status and provides immediate health information, directing patients to the appropriate level of care and reducing health care costs. In addition, all of our Care Management programs provide physician back-up availability if needed.
AMM’s Health Information Library includes over 1,000 pre-recorded health related messages, available in English and Spanish. A website library is also available.
The Nurse HelpLine program helps reduce unnecessary emergency room and physician visits and provides patients with around-the-clock access to care.
For more information about Alicare Medical Management’s services, visit www.alicaremed.com.
Alicare Medical Management (AMM), a member of the Amalgamated Family of Companies, is a national leader in developing care management solutions that promote cost savings and patient satisfaction. AMM’s call center is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to provide maximum access and assure optimum program effectiveness. The company’s services include: 24-hour Nurse HelpLine, Utilization Management, Maternity Management, Case Management, Disease Management, Health Coaching and Wellness, Independent Physician Review, Medical Claims Review and Hospital Bill Auditing. AMM holds four URAC accreditations for Utilization Management, Case Management, Health Call Center and Independent Review.