It’s Influenza Season! It’s that time of year again! It seems like the holidays, and flu season along with them, arrive quicker and quicker each year.
Turkey, cold winter air, falling snow and unwrapping presents go hand in hand with - you guessed it - the flu! Despite such prominence, the flu remains a mystery to most people. Many of you have really great questions: What is a virus? What causes the flu? Why does it affect so many Americans? How can I help prevent illness in myself and my family? Let’s start with what the Influenza virus is, what it is NOT and how it spreads.
What is the Flu?
The Influenza virus is, as all viruses are, an “intracellular parasite.” This means that although they can live outside a host as an independent particle, they need some other cell to replicate within. Viruses can infect all life forms, including animals, plants and even bacteria! Most importantly, antibiotics DO NOT affect viruses or the illnesses they cause in any way, shape or form.
Targeting influenza with medications and other therapies is difficult due to its genetic makeup. Influenza is NOT bacteria and cannot be killed by any medications we currently have.
Flu in the US
Last year in the US, there were 49 million cases of flu! Given our country’s current population, that means about 1 in every 7 Americans were affected by this virus. Few other illnesses have this kind of impact. Of those 49 million Americans affected, almost 1 million were hospitalized and 79,000 died.
Preventing the Flu
Why is it so contagious? How can so many people get sick? Influenza virion particles can survive on a surface for days and are very contagious. Most experts believe flu viruses spread mainly by tiny droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes. When you combine just how infectious this little bugger is with how closely packed we live, work and play, it’s no wonder millions of people get sick every year! Knowing all of this, how can we help prevent the transmission of flu within our country, our communities and our families? We start with something simple and easily achievable - hand washing. Effective hand washing has been shown to help reduce the transmission of flu. It’s a very simple intervention but as several recent studies suggest, most people don’t wash for the CDC-recommended 20 seconds or more. This leads to the need for other methods of stopping the flu in its path, such as limiting the touching of surfaces or your face, covering your nose when you sneeze and wearing a mask when you are ill. Other ways to combat the flu is to stay home until you are fever free for 24 hours or more, getting your annual influenza vaccine and getting lots of exercise, healthy eating and quality sleep.
Recovering from the Flu
If all this fails, and you are now sitting home with a temperature of 100.4° or greater, muscle and body aches, sore throat, nasal congestion, runny nose and cough as well as feeling like you’ve been hit by a train, what can you do to help recover quicker? Again, maintaining a healthy diet with strong fluid intake and getting plenty of rest are the cornerstones of getting better with most illnesses, flu included. Motrin and/or Tylenol can also be helpful with fever and pain. And, if you catch it early enough, there are medications like Tamiflu that can help shorten the time you are sick—it is important to note these medications do NOT “cure” the flu—simply shorten the duration of illness by 1-2 days. As with any sickness, check with your health care team if you feel you are sicker than you should be, have pre-existing conditions or aren’t getting better in the expected time frame. Lastly, don’t let the worry of illness prevent you from getting out to shop, dine or just enjoy the great outdoors! Have a happy, healthy holiday season.
Article Written By: Guy Venuti, MD, Pediatrician, HSHS Medical Group Pediatrics – O’Fallon