The Flu or Not the Flu? What Should You Do?
“I have the flu,” are words doctors will be hearing a lot in the next few weeks. Words patients may be hearing from the doctor are influenza, flu-like illness, viral illness or bacterial illness.
Influenza viruses change yearly. These changes make the flu difficult to control, although researchers work every year on developing vaccines that fight the most common strains.
The flu is a highly contagious virus that is spread by touching something the virus is on (direct contact) or by breathing it in through the air (airborne transmission). The virus can live for a long time on objects such as doorknobs, telephones or keyboards. Touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your mouth, eyes or nose could be the start of an infection.
The strains of the flu change frequently but the symptoms usually stay the same. Influenza is mainly a respiratory disease but all body systems can suffer. The symptoms start suddenly and can include any or all of the following:
- High fever, sometimes up to 105 degrees
- Severe aches and pains
- Dry cough
- Stuffy nose
- Fatigue that some describe as exhaustion
- Generally not feeling well all over
Although nausea, vomiting and diarrhea can sometimes accompany influenza infections, these are rarely the primary symptoms and are typically symptoms of another viral illness.
Unfortunately, influenza germs are spread early in the illness because people are unaware they are contagious. Symptoms can last 4 to 5 days, but the virus is shed for up to 7 days. Those who are ill should avoid contact with the very young, elderly or high-risk persons because the flu can be more complicated for these people.
The following are symptoms that should be evaluated by a health care provider:
- Breathing difficulty
- Mental status changes
- Stiff neck
- Severe headache
- Refusal to walk
- Ear or sinus pain
- Fevers that last longer than 4 days and other symptoms that last longer than 10 to 14 days
These symptoms which require medical treatment could be related to bacterial infections that occurs secondary to the flu virus.
Here are some tips to decrease the spread of influenza and keep your family well:
Handwashing is the best defense in preventing the spread of germs. Use soap and water to lather your entire hand - not just fingers and palms. Teach young children to say the alphabet while washing their hands, while the rest of us need to wash for 15 seconds to kill germs.
Use paper towels to turn off water and open doors in public restrooms. The use of hand sanitizers also helps reduce the spread of germs. Unless your hands are clean, avoid touching your mouth, eyes or nose.
Avoid close contact with people who are sick. Encourage those who are sick to stay home to prevent the spread of the illness.
Use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose during sneezes and coughing. Discard used tissues into wastebasket. If a tissue is not available, cough into your upper sleeve so your hand does not become contaminated.
The first line of defense for preventing influenza is the flu vaccine. Talk to your child’s doctor about whether or not your child should still receive the flu vaccine this year.
Sometimes, in specific circumstances, antiviral medication may be prescribed by a physician to lessen the severity of symptoms and to prevent influenza. Antiviral medications are not routinely prescribed, but are rather on a case-by-case basis. For example, children who are high risk may receive be prescribed an antiviral medication. Age is also taken into consideration. A limitation to the antivirals is they must be started within 48 hours of exposure. A good time to discuss antiviral medication with your pediatrician is when the flu vaccine is given.
Most cases of the flu can be treated at home by getting plenty of rest, increasing fluids and treating the symptoms of fever aches and pains with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Children should not be given aspirin products due to the risk of Reye’s Syndrome.
For more information, please call the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Answer Line at 314.454.KIDS (5437).