Olivia Bayuk, RN, American Red Cross Volunteer
It is that time of year. Pumpkins, hot chocolate, leaf raking, and the flu. As the weather gets colder and people head indoors, cases of influenza start to rise. The start of flu season varies every year. Typically, it starts around October, peaks between December and February, and starts to taper off toward spring. In a bad year, flu rates can remain high all the way into summer. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the last two flu seasons were quite mild. Even so, the CDC estimates that nine million people came down with this illness last year. Unfortunately, there is no way to know how mild or severe this season will be. All we can do is try to be as prepared and informed as possible. Fortunately, the Red Cross has some simple tips and tricks that can help you do just that.
To begin with, the flu is short for the influenza virus. There are many different strains of this virus (so far this year, the CDC has been seeing influenza A), but they all cause similar respiratory symptoms. According to the Mayo Clinic, these symptoms include a runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, fever, muscle aches, chills, headache, cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue.
If you think these symptoms sound common to many different illnesses, you would be correct. Most of these symptoms are from your immune system jumping into the fight and it usually attacks the same way every time regardless of the type of bug. This means that it can be difficult to determine exactly which virus you have just from your symptoms. It could be influenza, the common cold, COVID-19, RSV, pneumonia, and many others.
The best way to determine which illness you have is to get tested. Hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices all have tests that can find out exactly which virus you have. If you have mild symptoms, your doctor’s office or an urgent care would be an excellent choice. If you have an exceedingly high fever, severe shortness of breath, or chest pain, the Red Cross recommends heading to the emergency room.
According to the CDC, certain groups of people are more likely to develop severe symptoms. Adults older than sixty-five and children younger than two have immune systems that are not working at full capacity, which means the virus can make them sicker. People who have chronic medical conditions are also at higher risk of developing severe influenza because their immune systems are distracted, suppressed, or overactive. This same group of people could also have organ compromise from either chronic disease processes (like asthma or COPD) or medications. Finally, women who are pregnant are potentially at elevated risk for becoming severely ill due to all the changes to the body during pregnancy.
Regardless of if you are high risk, or if you simply do not want to spend ten days in bed, there are some simple methods the Red Cross recommends that will help lower your risk of contracting the flu this year. You catch the flu by coming into contact with the large droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Thus, to avoid catching the flu, you must avoid these large droplets.
The most important preventative measure is washing your hands thoroughly and regularly. This action remains the most effective preventative strategy, but it is often overlooked or forgotten. After washing your hands, another good strategy is to avoid touching your face. Frequently, germs end up on your hands and only get inside when you touch sensitive areas such as your eyes, mouth, and nose. Next, you could regularly disinfect commonly touched surfaces such as doorknobs, light switches, railings, bannisters, drawer handles, television remotes, game console controllers, keyboards, and phones. To avoid breathing in the droplets produced when someone coughs or sneezes, you could wear a mask. Try to avoid touching the outside of the mask as this will transfer the germs to your hands and ruin all your good efforts. Finally, you could talk with your doctor about the flu vaccine. It is offered every year, but it is usually most effective if received near the beginning of flu season.
Despite all this effort, what happens if you do contract the flu? Fortunately, most people will have mild symptoms that can be treated at home. Start by drinking plenty of fluids and getting plenty of rest. Fortunately, flu season usually occurs when it is cold and wet outside which is a good excuse to lie on the couch and watch your favorite show. You can also try over the counter cold/flu remedies and analgesics like Tylenol. Every person is different so make sure you check with your doctor in advance for which over-the-counter remedies are safe for you and your family. There are some antivirals approved for use in treating influenza. Talk with your doctor to see if these would be right for you. As always, if you develop severe symptoms, head to the nearest emergency room.
While no one likes getting sick, it does and will happen. Fortunately, there are some simple ways to protect your family and this quick rundown should give you a great jumping off point. For more information, the National Red Cross released a similar article covering the flu. Click on this link to jump to that article. And when in doubt, ask your doctor. Hopefully, after plenty of preparation and prevention efforts, all you and your kids will have to worry about this year is how large of a Thanksgiving turkey to buy.