Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness and on occasion lead to hospitalization and even death. Flu seasons are unpredictable in a number of ways. While seasonal flu is widespread every year, the timing, severity and length of the epidemic depends on many factors, including which viruses are spreading and whether they match the viruses in the vaccine. Flu virus strains are constantly changing so it is not unusual for new virus strains to appear. The timing of flu is also unpredictable and can vary from season to season; however, flu activity usually begins in October, peaks in January or February and occurs as late as May.
Signs and symptoms of the flu:
• Sore throat
• Runny or stuffy nose
• Muscle or body aches
• Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults
Most experts agree that flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk. Less often, a person may contact the flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touch their own mouth, eyes or nose. You may be able to pass on the flu to someone else even before you know that you are sick, as well as when you are sick. The usual period of contagion is one day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. Some people, especially young children and those with weakened immune systems, might be able to infect others for even a longer time.
The single best way to prevent seasonal flu is to be immunized with flu vaccine every year. The vaccine is changed a bit every year based on immunologists predicting which strains of flu will affect us. There are two types of vaccine, flu shots or inactivated flu vaccine given by injection and recommended for everyone ages 6 months and up and live attenuated (weakened) flu vaccine given through a nasal spray, recommended for healthy people 2 to 49 years of age who are not pregnant. It is important to note that it will take about 2 weeks for antibodies against the flu to develop and the flu vaccine will not protect patients against flu-like illness not caused by the influenza virus. Yearly flu vaccination should begin in September or as soon as the vaccine becomes available and continue throughout the flu season.
Some individuals are at higher risk for developing flu-related complications. These people include:
• Children younger than 2 years of age
• The elderly
• Pregnant women
• People with chronic medical conditions (asthma, heart disease, chronic lung disease) and people with a weakened immune system (diabetes, HIV)
• People younger than 19 who are receiving long-term aspirin therapy
• American Indians and Native Alaskans
Should these individuals become ill with the flu anti-viral medications may be prescribed for them such as Tamiflu and Relenza. Our providers will make this decision based on many factors and prescribe the appropriate course of treatment on an individual basis. These antiviral medications do not “kill” the flu; they make the illness milder and perhaps shorten the course.
A diagnosis of the flu is often a clinical diagnosis made by the provider after seeing a number of people with the same presenting symptoms. In our clinics we have a rapid test which utilizes a nasal swab or a viral swab can be sent to the lab for more definitive testing but most often the treatment will remain supportive.
The best thing you can do is prevent flu infection! Get vaccinated, wash your hands frequently, cover your mouth when you cough, use hand sanitizer, and please stay home when you are sick.
Tracey Cassese, RN, BSN, LNCC is Director of Clinical Operations for Urgent Care of Connecticut.