Influenza – Dr. David Long

We know it’s coming every year around October to may – influenza shows up and hits us hard. It affects our schools, our communities, our jobs, and our households. I wanted to take a minute today to give you some more information about the flu – influenza, so that you’ll be prepared.

 Every year between about October and May, influenza shows up. The truth is it never leaves. It’s always here, but it’s very, very minimally spread in the community during our summer months. It’s worse in the winter in the Northern hemisphere where we live, that’s from October through the winter, all the way up until May. In the Southern hemisphere, it’s flip-flopped. It’s from may through October, that’s their cold months. So that’s when they have a flu outbreak. So about the time they’re done is when ours starts. 

So we have to think about what are we going to do to prepare ourselves for the flu season? What are we going to do to help minimize its effect on us once it’s here? And how can we be careful to take care of those around us, to minimize its impact on them? There’s a couple of other things that I think are worth noting about influenza.

It is an upper respiratory infection, that is, it’s going to affect you somewhere between the lungs all the way up to the eyes and somewhere in between. Now, occasionally, you might have some gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea or diarrhea, but when people get a stomach bug and they refer to it as the stomach flu, that’s a different virus. That’s a different bug altogether.

The influenza is a coughing, high fever, achiness, headache, sore throat, achy eyes, burning in the eyes. Those are the most common symptoms and you can see how a lot of those symptoms kind of overlap with the flu or even allergies. And sometimes it may be difficult to distinguish one from the other, but the main differences between somebody having a cold or sinus infection and the flu is its sudden onset and its severity.

And even those people who will tell me, I never run a fever. If you really get influenza, you’re going to run some kind of a fever. It’s very unlikely that you’d have it and not have any fever at all. One of the ironies in educating patients about the flu is that if they have runny nose and congestion, headache, and coughing, most of the year, we say, “Hey, give that a few days, try some over the counter medications. And if you’re not getting better after five days to a week, then come see us and we’ll see if there’s something else going on.” The recommendation for the flu is the opposite because we have some effective treatments for influenza, but only if you get on the medicine within about the first two days of your symptoms.

So if you wait three or four days to wait it out, then we’re outside the treatment window and the medication wouldn’t be helpful to you anyway. So you have a sudden onset of severe body aches and pains and high fever and a really intrusive, dry cough that’s keeping you up at night, and some of the other symptoms I mentioned burning of the eyes, will you get right into the doctor if it’s during the flu season? Yes, because the medications can be very effective if you get on them quickly. 

One of the last things that I really want to mention about influenza is the importance of prevention. What can we do to minimize the likelihood that we would even get it at all? The truth is our immune systems are very peculiar. Some people may get strep throat from time to time, but they hardly ever get the stomach bug. Others may get the stomach bug from time to time, but they hardly ever get the flu. And then you may be one of those people that the flu just has your number. So if that’s your story, then for sure you’d want to be paying really close attention to prevention.

So what do I mean by that? Well, the first thing that we can do, which we’ve become very familiar with during the coronavirus pandemic is a covering your face, whether you’re coughing into your elbow or wearing a mask. And the importance of washing your hands, because that minimizes the transmission from you to other people and minimizes the chances of you picking it up.

Another thing that you can do is try to avoid someone who’s sick. If you know somebody has a fever or they’ve been coughing, you really want to keep your distance because it really does matter. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the most effective way to achieve some immunity and prevention of flu is the flu vaccine. I’ll be the first to admit the flu vaccine is not as good as some other vaccines. Sometimes they really nail it. And we have a vaccine that very closely matches the circulating virus in our community other years, it doesn’t closely match. And so those are the years that the vaccine doesn’t work. 

And I would challenge that, because a lot of times people will get the vaccine, then they still get the flu and they’re sick for a couple of days. Maybe they tested positive, but in their minds, that vaccine didn’t work well. I would submit to you that it did work. You were sick for two days instead of for seven days. Since you were only sick for two days, it’s much, much less likely that you would have those complications like pneumonia or a dehydration causing kidney problems and such. 

The other complexity about the flu vaccine is that the influence of virus changes every year, so we have to have a new vaccine. Measles doesn’t change, polio doesn’t change. You get one vaccine and you’re covered for life. The flu vaccine changes, meaning that about eight months before the flu season, the scientists have to guess which versions of influenza. There are many. Which versions are going to be the ones that propagate and cause the seasonal flu outbreak. And they have to start preparing the vaccine, and then they have to start manufacturing the vaccine. Then we have to start distributing the vaccine before the flu even shows up. So the fact that they nail it about 22 out of every 25 years, speaks to the expertise and the brilliance of the scientists working on it. 

So I highly recommend flu vaccine every year. Be sure and wash your hands, cough into your elbow, maintain your distance from other people that you know are sick. And that should minimize influenza’s effect on you.  For more information, click on the link below or feel free to come by the clinic at the Lubbock Cooper Health Center. Thanks for listening.

 

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