As an ER doctor, I see the flu and flu-like illnesses almost on a daily basis this time of year. Influenza is a family of viruses that can cause mild to life threatening illness. As we all tend to spend more time indoors in closer proximity to others when it is cold outside, the chance of these illnesses spreading to others increases exponentially. Everyone can get the flu, but certain groups are at higher risk for getting really sick and having complications. There are some simple things you can do to protect yourself, and some myths that certainly need to be debunked.
According to the CDC, the most important thing is to get vaccinated. For some, vaccines are a controversial topic, but the science is clear-vaccines can prevent the flu and greatly limit the number of people who get sick. You can still get the flu if you are vaccinated, but it is often less severe, and the risk of complication is less. Vaccines also allow for the concept of ”herd immunity” which helps the population at large. https://www.cdc.gov/features/fluprevention/index.html
Vaccination against the flu is recommended for children starting at 6 months of age. Below 6 months, the best recommendation is to limit exposure to situations that may expose your little one to the flu, and to encourage close contact to get vaccinated-herd immunity! Talk to your pediatrician for more information or find out more at the CDC website, https://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/children.htm#special
Avoiding the Flu
With or without vaccines, common sense precautions can help you and your family avoid the flu.
Avoid contact with people who you know are sick. If you get sick, try to limit your exposure to others.
Wash your hands! Keeping a bottle of hand sanitizer is also helpful. Wipe own any surfaces that you come into contact with that may harbor the virus-shopping carts, work stations, etc…
Cover your mouth or using tissue when you sneeze and cough and avoid rubbing or touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
Who has a higher risk of catching the flu and suffering complications? Pregnant women, children with underlying health problems such as asthma, neurologic problems, heart problems, HIV, etc… If you or your child has any significant underlying medical problems, be vigilant.
So let’s say you or your baby start having symptoms of the flu-what are you looking for and what do you do? These illnesses often start off with the classic cold symptoms-runny nose, cough and progress into fever, chills, and body aches. People often state that they feel like they have been hit by a truck. Again, symptoms can be mild to debilitating. From my experience, unless there is a fever and body aches, the likelihood of true influenza is less likely.
As far as what do you do about it is a case by case situation. If you are otherwise healthy and symptoms are mild, you don’t need to rush to your local ER to get tested and treated. If you think you truly need to be seen by a doctor, call your primary care doctor to see if they can see you. An urgent care is an option, but keep in mind they may have limited capability to provide IV fluids if they are deemed necessary. If you are vomiting, your urine is dark and concerned about dehydration, you are having altered mental status and difficulty breathing-you probably should go to your local ER to be examined.
Treating the Flu
We see a lot of people who just want to “get checked out” even with having very mild symptoms. I will never tell someone not to go to the ER, but keep in mind, the CDC doesn’t recommend testing for the flu unless you are in a high risk category-very young (less than 2 years) over 65, or if you have underlying lung, heart, kidney disease, are pregnant, etc… If you are able to control your symptoms with over the counter medications such as Robitussin, Motrin, and Tylenol and are able to stay hydrated, time is the best remedy. Flu symptoms may stick around for 5-10 days so be prepared.
Tamiflu – not everyone needs Tamiflu. It is not a magic pill that takes away your symptoms. It should be reserved for those who are being hospitalized, who are very sick, or those with underlying medical conditions. It MAY reduce the severity of symptoms and MAY reduce the length of symptoms by 24 hours. There are some pretty significant side effects, mostly vomiting and diarrhea and it can be expensive, so you have to make the decision if it is truly needed.
The flu causes panic, and rightly so – millions catch it every year, hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized and scores of people die every year from it. People with influenza can get sick quickly. As a general rule, I tell patients if the child is eating, drinking, peeing, playing and pooping – they are probably ok. Toughing it out at home is always worth a try, but if you are concerned, calling your doctor is recommended. The ER is open 24/7 and we are always happy to evaluate and take care of you!!
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