According to the CDC, despite the start of some declining numbers the overall flu activity is still above baseline. And as a practicing physician I can attest to that!
But often during this time of the year it is hard to distinguish a common cold from the flu. There are some things that can tip you off. First, colds usually begin gradually with more mild symptoms like sore throats and are less likely to cause high fevers or severe headaches and muscle aches. The main symptoms of a cold tend to be sniffles; runny nose and a wet sounding junky productive cough often from postnasal drip. Flu on the other hand usually hits you suddenly like a freight train with a high fever usually greater than 101-102° F, a bad headache and muscle aches. If there is a cough, it is more likely to be a dry non-productive cough. Most people suspect they have the flu because it wipes you out!
I tell my patients if the preponderance of your symptoms are from the neck up it’s probably a cold whereas if most of your symptoms are from the neck down it may be the flu. Most colds do get better in about a week while the flu can linger a bit longer. Viruses cause both cold and flu, so antibiotics are not useful at all. Please don’t bug your doctor for them! Antiviral drugs are available but in the past we reserved them for those most at risk for severe complications from the flu.
In the past we believed that chronically ill adults and children – those with high-risk medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, certain types of cancer, congenital heart defects or neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy or epilepsy – were most at risk for serious complications from the flu. Pneumonia is the most deadly complication from the flu. The CDC estimates that influenza and pneumonia are the 9th leading cause of death.
However a disturbing new study this year showed that significant numbers of healthy children are also dying from complications of the flu. In addition, the study found that most of these children had not gotten vaccinated for influenza. And it isn’t just children. Another recent study just found that young adults who had not been vaccinated for the flu were more likely to have severe cases that required hospitalization and sometimes even care in the ICU (intensive care unit.)
These needless tragedies can be prevented. The CDC recommends that all children 6 months or older get the flu vaccine every year. Babies younger than 6 months get some protection from their moms who should have been vaccinated during pregnancy, because pregnant women are also at risk for serious complications from influenza.
Despite what some think, you CANNOT get the flu from the vaccine. It is made from dead or altered virus. You may feel a little ill afterwards but that is just your body mounting its immune response getting ready to protect you from any circulating influenza virus around. You can also get some soreness at the site of the injection. And even if we find that in some years the vaccine is not a perfect match for that particular strain that particular year, it can still give you some cross immunity. Therefore, you may not get as sick and you are less likely to get a fatal complication, if you do get exposed to the influenza virus.
The signs and symptoms that indicate you may be developing a serious complication from the flu often occur when flu-like symptoms have begun to improve but then you relapse with worse fever, cough and sometimes a rash. Other alarming symptoms that indicate you need to go right to the emergency room are shortness of breath and difficulty breathing, chest pain, any signs of confusion, if you are vomiting and can’t keep fluids down, and any severe pallor or bluish discolorations of your lips or fingertips.
There are other preventive measures to take during cold and flu season. Hand washing as the single most important thing you can do. Use plain old soap and warm water and sing the happy birthday song 3 times to ensure you have washed for an adequate amount of time! Don’t touch your face, eyes, nose or mouth during this season without washing your hands first, since that is often how the viruses are transmitted. Cover your sneezes and cough not with your hands but use the inside crook of your elbow, if you don’t have a tissue to use. And please don’t be a hero and go to work or school if you get sick… stay home, rest and drink fluids for your own sake and for that of your co-workers too!