Do I Have The Flu? Recognizining Symptoms and How To Avoid The Flu

by Cindy

Flu Symptoms and How To Avoid The Flu

Influenza is a virus that is very easily transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets.  This means that the flu virus is spread by sneezing, coughing, and by touching contaminated surfaces.  Influenza is responsible for numerous days of missed work, hospitalizations and deaths every year throughout the world.  It is a serious illness that can quickly sweep through a community.  For these reasons it is very important for people to know what is the flu, understand how to recognize it, and learn how to avoid the flu.

Flu Symptoms: Early Recognition is Key!

It is important for all people to familiarize themselves with the symptoms of flu because early intervention and prevention of transmission is very important to keeping family members healthy and out of the hospital. The differences between a cold and the flu typically are in the severity of symptoms.  Although many symptoms between the two overlap, patients with influenza tend to have a sudden onset of severe symptoms.

Symptoms of the flu include a sudden onset of some or all of the following:

  • Fever greater than 100.4F
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Fatigue
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Stomach upset

Diagnosis of Flu

Flu is typically diagnosed clinically by your physican on the basis of your symptoms.  There are also different laboratory tests that can be done to confirm the diagnosis.  Your physician may order an nasal swab to run a rapid test in the office to screen for influenza.  Your physician may also send a sample to the laboratory, which can take several days to process. Typically this type of testing is done for tracking of data and reporting purposes.   

Common Flu Treatments

The flu is a viral infection that will resolve on its own in most patients within 2-5 days, sometimes slightly longer.  Patients at increased risk for complications from the flu (see below) should seek medical attention at the onset of symptoms because these patients may benefit most from medications that are used to treat influenza.

Treatments for flu include:

  • Anti-viral medications:  Not all patients with influenza need anti-viral medications but these medications can be used in certain patient populations to decrease the duration and severity of symptoms.  These medications are most effective when started within 48 hours of the first symptoms of flu. This flu treatment tends to reduce the duration of symptoms by one day and the goal of this treatment is to reduce the risk of flu complications.
  • Rest
  • Fluids
  • Tylenol (Avoid the use of aspirin in children with flu due to the risk of Reyes syndrome)

Many people demand antibiotics for the flu and other common viral illnesses.  Antibiotics are not effective for viral infections.  These medications are effective only against bacterial infections and taking these medications when they are not needed can contribute to antibiotic resistant bacterial strains and the evolution of “superbugs.” Antibiotics are not necessary for the flu unless you have developed a secondary bacterial infection, such as pneumonia or an ear infection. 

Flu Complications

When you have the flu it is important to monitor for complications from the flu, such as dehydration or pneumonia.  Patients should seek immediately medical attention if they experience shortness of breath, dehydration, dizziness, confusion, vomiting or blue discoloration of the skin. Those that are at highest risk for complications from the flu include:

  • Children under 5 years old
  • Patients over 65 years old
  • Nursing home residents
  • Patients with chronic health conditions such as asthma, COPD, diabetes and heart disease.
  • Patients who are immunocompromised
  • Pregnant women

How to Avoid The Flu

The best way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated for influenza every year.  Research supports the use of the flu vaccine as the most effective way to prevent influenza and flu related complications and deaths. The flu vaccine has been shown to prevent infection in up to 80% of patients who get the vaccine.  In addition, those that do get the flu after taking the vaccine tend to have milder cases with fewer complications.

The Flu Vaccine

The flu vaccine is available in an intramuscular injection, a subcutaneous injection, and a nasal spray.  The intramuscular injectable flu vaccine is indicated for all patients over 6 months old.  The subcutaneous vaccine is new in 2011 and is limited to certain ages for use. The nasal vaccine should only be used in healthy patients ages 2 to 49. It should not be used in pregnant women or patients with certain chronic health conditions.  You should ask your health care provider which formulation is best for you.

The flu vaccine takes approximately two weeks for the vaccine to effectively protect you from the virus.  Patients who have an allergy to eggs, have had a previous reaction to the vaccine or have had Guillain-Barre Syndrome should not have the flu vaccine. Common side effects from the vaccine include mild irritation at the injection site, low grade fever, aches and headache.

Who Should Get Flu Vaccine?

The CDC recommends that all patients over 6 months old receive the flu vaccine. It is very strongly recommended for:

  • Adults over 50
  • Patients in nursing homes or long term care facilities.
  • Patients with chronic lung disease or asthma
  • Patients with heart conditions
  • Patients with diabetes
  • Patients with kidney disease
  • Patients who are immunocompromised
  • Pregnant Women
  • Health care workers

Other Tips For Avoiding The Flu

  • Frequent hand washing
  • Prevent the transmission of flu by covering your mouth when you cough and staying home if you are ill
  • Post exposure prophylaxis: Talk to your health care provider to see if you need medications if you have been exposed to a confirmed case of the flu.
  • Avoid touching your face

The Flu And Diabetes

Patients with diabetes are at an elevated risk for complications from the flu.  For this reason it is important for diabetic patients to consult their health care provider if they suspect that they have the flu.  In addition, patients with diabetes should take care to:

  • Carefully select over the counter medications:  Over the counter cough suppressants and medications that treat flu symptoms may sometimes be high in sugar.  Diabetic patients should read labels and avoid medications that are high in sugar.  Products should be labeled as sugar free.
  • Frequent blood sugar monitoringBlood sugar levels can become dangerously abnormal during times of illness and feeling unwell from the flu can mask symptoms of hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia.  For this reason patients with diabetes should check their blood sugar with their glucometer every 3-4 hours during illness.  Patients should call their doctor to report any significant abnormalities in readings. 
  • Stay hydrated:  It is extremely important that patients with diabetes stay hydrated during times of illness.  Care should be taken to avoid sugary beverages.  The American Diabetes Association supports the use of sugar free ginger ale, tea and water to keep hydrated.  Patients should drink small amounts of fluid every hour and should monitor urine output to be sure that there is no evidence of dehydration.

Diabetic patients are at an increased risk for complications from the flu so it is important that these patients understand the symptoms and how to prevent this condition.  All patients should call their physician if they have any concerns about the flu.

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