“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” So states one of the frequently-heard Christmas songs. And in many ways, it can be wonderful. At the same time, from a health perspective, it’s a time to take a few extra precautions. You may notice a few extra sniffles and coughs around you. Some are more serious than others. Let’s take a few moments and look at this hairy beast called influenza, or the flu.
For most people, the flu is just a big unpleasant nuisance. But it is estimated that over 20,000 people die from the flu each year in the U.S., mostly the very young and the very old.
Far more lethal strains emerge periodically. These deadly strains produced 3 global pandemics in the last century. The worst one, called the Spanish flu, occurred in 1918 and killed an estimated 20-50 million persons world-wide, with 549,000 deaths in the United States alone. So the flu can be a huge deadly deal.
Flu symptoms are typically some combination of sore throat, congestion, cough, fever, fatigue, body aches, and headache. It is very contagious from airborne droplets and close contact and is most contagious from the day before symptoms start to a couple days after they have begun. It usually takes 1-4 days between being infected and starting to show symptoms.
Right now our area of east Tennessee is showing a substantial spike in flu illness, which is a little earlier than the typical January-February peak of illness we usually see. Also, there have been some strains of flu that actually tend to hit young and middle-aged adults the hardest.
The good news is that virtually all of the strains currently circulating are included in this year’s flu vaccine. Sometimes the makers of the vaccine guess right and sometimes they get fooled; this year they seem to have nailed it. By the way, the new quadrivalent flu vaccine (that has four instead of three strains that it covers) only offers a very slight additional advantage as the fourth viral strain has barely showed up.
The other good news is that there is almost no resistance to the commonly used antiviral medicines, Tamiflu and Relenza. However these medicines need to be started within 48-72 hours of the onset of symptoms to get much benefit; the sooner the better.
So, what’s the best approach for traversing this precarious time of the year? First of all, if you or your kids haven’t gotten the flu shot (or nasal spray where appropriate), it’s not too late, and I’d strongly recommend it, especially this year when its coverage is so good. But don’t delay, as mentioned, the wave of flu is currently breaking over east Tennessee and it takes about two weeks to achieve good immunity after vaccination.
By the way, the flu shot has no live virus so it can’t give you the flu. Nationwide, the flu shot and spray prevent hundreds of thousands of cases of flu. Of course there are other flu-like illnesses that the flu shot won’t protect against, but your odds of getting the actual flu are greatly reduced. Also, when you get a flu shot you protect those around you who you could otherwise infect if you got the flu.
OK, what if you start getting symptoms of the flu? If the symptoms are bad, this is a time where you don’t want to just wait and see for a few days. The sooner you get in and get diagnosed and specifically treated, the greater your benefit from one of the antiviral meds, if this is indicated. Beyond this, rest, fluids and ibuprofen or acetaminophen can be helpful for substantial fever or pain. I’m a bit of a minimalist with multi-symptom over-the-counter meds since none of them directly fight the virus and some have a lot of potential for side effects, especially in younger children. Occasionally they can give a bit of relief if some symptom is particularly obnoxious.
So, as another Christmas song proclaims, “You better watch out…” We’re in the first wave of the flu season and we want this to be a wonderful rather than a miserable time of the year. In the meantime, and on a deeper level, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Blessings!
Andrew Smith, MD is board-certified in Family Medicine and practices at 1503 East Lamar Alexander Parkway, Maryville. Contact him at 982-0835