Influenza is an illness characterized by cough, fever, muscle aches, sore throat, poor appetite, headache and sometimes nausea and diarrhea. It is most often spread from person to person by coughing and sneezing. It usually takes several days for someone to become sick after exposure. A person with influenza may be sick for up to a week, and the cough may linger for weeks thereafter. Some persons, especially the elderly and those with chronic medical illnesses, can become more seriously ill with influenza. Influenza may trigger worsening of symptoms of chronic heart and lung disease.
Every year, during the influenza season (late fall through late winter) about 10-20% of US citizens become ill with influenza. Of these, over 200,000 are hospitalized and about 30,000 die due to influenza and its complications.
Ways to prevent getting or spreading influenza include:
- Get vaccinated (see next section).
- Keep your hands clean. You can use soap and water or a hand sanitizer that can be bought in any pharmacy or grocery store.
- Cover your nose and mouth when coughing. This can be done with tissues or if need be, your elbow or hands. Be sure to wash after coughing.
- Avoid those persons who are ill with a cough illness. If someone is coughing it is best to completely avoid them or to remain at least six feet away from them if possible.
What you need to know about the flu vaccine:
This is the best way to protect yourself:
- The vaccine is safe.
- The vaccine is effective.
- You cannot get the flu from the vaccine.
- The vaccine is manufactured by growing it in eggs. If you have a severe allergy to eggs it is best to avoid the vaccine.
- There are two ways to administer the vaccine:
- Injection. This is the more traditional way of administration. It may cause mild arm soreness and, rarely, a low grade fever for a day or so.
- Nasal spray. This is a live virus vaccine that has been weakened so it cannot cause the flu. This can be used only for healthy persons aged greater than 2 years and less than 49 years, who are not pregnant and do not have chronic illnesses or immune suppression.
- Adults and children older than 10 years should receive one dose of either the injection or intranasal vaccine.
- Children age 9 years or younger getting the vaccine for the first time should receive two doses of either the injection or intranasal vaccine. The two doses should be separated by more than 21 days.
What to do if you get sick:
If you become ill with fever and cough review the following issues:
A. How sick are you? The great majority of persons with influenza may feel poorly but do not need medical attention. Warning symptoms of more serious illness include feeling short of breath, wheezing, excessive vomiting, feeling dehydrated, mental cloudiness or inability to care for one self.
B. Do you have risks for complications of influenza?
Persons with the following conditions are at higher risk of complications from influenza:
- Pregnant women
- Children less than 5 years old (especially those less than 2 years of age)
- Persons older than 65 years of age
- Persons with asthma, chronic lung, heart, liver, or kidney disease, blood neurologic, neuromuscular disorders, metabolic disorders such as diabetes or immune system disorders including cancer, HIV, organ transplantation or taking immune suppressing drugs.
- Children and adolescents receiving long-term aspirin therapy
- Residents of nursing homes and other chronic-care facilities
- Persons who are obese
If you feel you may be more seriously ill (A above) or have a risk for complications (B above) then call your doctor’s office for further advice. If you are not seriously ill and do not have risks then stay home, don’t go to work and keep yourself hydrated. You can use aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen for aches, pains and sore throat.
Christopher Grace, MD, is Director of Infectious Disease at the UVM Medical Center