The flu is a seasonal virus, which means it predominantly infects people during the cold winter months. It’s caused by two similar viruses: influenza A and influenza B. The flu slightly changes annually, which requires scientists to produce a new vaccine for us each year. Rarely, the flu virus undergoes changes that lead to higher infectivity rates, causing epidemics or even pandemics.
While the flu virus gives most of us unwanted symptoms that keep us in bed for a few days, the influenza virus can be particularly dangerous, even lethal to certain high-risk populations. The good news is that the flu is one of the few viruses for which we have antivirals, which help speed up recovery and reduce the danger of serious complications for high-risk groups.
How Do I Know if I Have the Flu?
Those with the flu commonly develop a sudden fever and experience headaches and body aches. Generally, they feel unwell or fatigued. Additionally, symptoms often include a dry cough, sore throat, and a runny or congested nose.
However, some people don’t have the normal spectrum of symptoms. Whether you have more subtle symptoms or not depends both on the characteristics of the year’s virus strain as well as your immune system. Some patients won’t ever develop fevers or body aches but instead will feel like they have a cold. Others might develop unique symptoms that dominate their disease’s course like loss of appetite, weakness, or dizziness.
Other conditions to consider that have similar symptoms as the flu:
- Strep throat
- Bacterial sinus infection
- The common cold
- Early HIV infection
In those over the age of 65, the flu can have subtle symptoms. The typical symptoms of sore throat and body aches are often absent. Instead, patients experience weakness, dizziness, and loss of appetite.
Diagnosis from the Doctors at The Kingsley Clinic
Are you wondering if you have the flu (and are an adult under the age of 65)? A diagnostic clue doctors listen for is when a patient describes their symptoms by saying, “it feels like I was suddenly run over by a bus.” If it’s winter and you’ve developed a fever, feel like you’ve been hit by a bus, or recall the precise time your symptoms started, you probably have the flu. In fact, the likelihood is so high that you can skip the trip to urgent care and avoid that uncomfortable nasal swab test!
How Did I Catch the Flu?
Symptoms typically begin 2-3 days after exposure to the flu virus. The virus itself is transmitted on small and large particles coughed or sneezed out into the world. Large particles only stay suspended in the air for up to 6 feet, whereas small particles can travel much farther. A recent study showed that small particles can be expelled from breathing alone — without coughing or sneezing — but this transmission pathway is less likely. Another potential source of the flu is contact with surfaces contaminated with respiratory droplets. During flu season, public surfaces like door handles are often a major vehicle of transmission.
How Severe is the Flu?
For the vast majority of persons, the flu resolves on its own. However, the virus is fatal to 0.1% of people who contract it. Below are groups with high risks of flu complications:
- Newborns and children up to to 5 years of age (especially those under 2)
- All persons over the age of 60
- Pregnant women
- Adults and children with chronic lung diseases such as asthma, COPD, cancer, or interstitial lung diseases
- Adults and children with chronic illnesses such as chronic kidney disease and chronic liver diseases including cirrhosis and diabetes
- All persons with suppressed immune systems
- Nursing home and long-term care facility residents
- All persons who are morbidly obese (BMI > 40)
- Native Americans/Alaska natives
If you notice chest tightness, feel like you cannot get enough air when you breathe or are so weak you cannot take care of yourself, call your doctor immediately or dial 911 and go to the nearest hospital.
How Do You Cure the Flu Quickly?
Unlike bacteria, viruses are often hard to treat. Fortunately, the flu is a virus for which we do have treatment — a medication called Tamiflu. But before you start celebrating too soon, note that Tamiflu’s effect is a lot less inspiring than antibiotics that treat strep throat or bacterial sinus infections.
The Benefits of Tamiflu
Tamiflu typically reduces symptom duration by 24 hours. For example, it turns a 5-day illness into a 4-day illness. Some studies suggest it reduces the risk of complications and prevents hospitalizations. It is recommended that all patients take Tamiflu so long as they can get treatment within 48 hours of experiencing symptoms.
Cold and flu medicine help treat symptoms, but they don’t affect the virus itself. While these medications make you feel better, they won’t shorten the length of your illness nor will they reduce the risk of being hospitalized or developing severe complications. We recommend taking both Tamiflu and cold and flu medicine to get the benefits of both.
Diagnosis from the Doctors at The Kingsley Clinic:
If you want to maximize the benefits of Tamiflu, note that every hour counts. The sooner you take your first dose, the more impact it will have. Those who take it within 6-12 hours can see a reduction in their symptom duration in 2-3 days. Talk to your telemedicine doctor to receive a prescription as soon as possible. It’s a race against the clock!