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Influenza (Flu)

Typically, flu viruses spread by droplets from coughing, sneezing. The flu can also be spread by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching your own eyes, mouth or nose. This is why hand hygiene is so important in preventing the spread many illnesses.

With so much mental energy having been consumed by another virus this year, it may be easy to forget about the potential severity of the influenza virus. During the 2019-2020 season alone, as many as 56 million Americans contracted influenza, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of those who became ill with the flu, an estimated 740,000 were hospitalized, and as many as 62,000 Americans died of influenza.

At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we are committed to helping you stay healthy all year long. Here is the essential information you need to know about influenza, and what measures you should take to protect yourself this flu season.

What is Influenza?

Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness. It is spread via respiratory droplets, meaning that a person who is ill with the flu can pass it on to others by coughing or sneezing. It usually takes between one and four days for a person who has been exposed to influenza to develop an infection, and symptoms can last for one to two weeks.

Influenza’s presence within the population fluctuates over the course of the year, with “flu season” typically beginning near the end of the year, in October, peaking in the mid-winter (usually in February), and continuing into the springtime, sometimes lasting as late as May. However, despite its seasonality, it is possible to contract influenza at any time of the year.

What Causes Influenza?

Influenza is caused by several different viruses that are in the influenza family. Each year, flu season is defined by a few predominant strains of the influenza virus. These viral strains vary from year to year and change over the course of time.

What Are the Symptoms of Influenza?

The experience of influenza can vary from person to person, however, the most commonly experienced symptoms include the following:

  • Fever and/or chills
  • Body aches and muscle aches
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Appetite loss

Some versions of influenza can also cause digestive symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, or diarrhea; however, these symptoms are less common.

Who Gets Influenza?

People of all ages and backgrounds are at risk of getting influenza; however, the following factors make you more vulnerable to contracting an influenza infection:

  • Being of a very young or very old age
  • Being immunosuppressed, whether from illness, certain medications, or pregnancy
  • Smoking
  • Having lung disease, such as asthma or COPD, or other types of chronic disease
  • Not getting vaccinated against the flu
  • Not practicing respiratory hygiene measures, such as frequently washing your hands, not touching your face, and keeping your distance from those with respiratory symptoms
  • Being in a high-risk environment where viral outbreaks are likely, such as a nursing home, hospital setting, or incarcerated setting

It is also important to note that having influenza during one flu season does not protect you from having it again the next year, or even from getting sick again within the same year from a different strain of the virus.

How is Influenza Diagnosed?

Influenza can be diagnosed in a number of different ways. Your healthcare provider may be able to diagnose you clinically, based on your history and physical exam, particularly if you have been around others who are known to have had influenza.

Your healthcare provider may conduct a rapid influenza test, which is a nasal swab that can check for the presence of viral particles in your nasal passageway. Influenza tests cannot tell with 100 percent certainty whether or not you have influenza, so results are always paired with the broader clinical picture. Viral cultures and other types of diagnostic tests may also be used to diagnose influenza, particularly if you or a loved one require hospitalization.

Your healthcare provider may also use the following evaluations to determine the extent of your influenza illness:

  • Vital signs (oxygen level, blood pressure, respiratory rate, heart rate, and temperature)
  • X-ray or CT of the chest
  • EKG
  • Blood work
  • Respiratory Function Testing

How is Influenza Treated?

The way that influenza is treated depends largely on how sick you are and the duration of time that you have had symptoms.

Mild Influenza

For mild cases of influenza, your healthcare provider may simply recommend supportive care, such as increasing your rest, staying hydrated, taking medications to help with symptoms, and monitoring yourself. Antiviral medication may be recommended, but only with careful consideration of the extent of your illness and your treatment goals.

Moderate Influenza

Cases of moderate influenza may also be managed at home with rest, hydration, and medications to help with symptoms. However, your healthcare provider may be more likely to recommend an anti-influenza medication to help your symptoms resolve faster. In general, antiviral medicines, such as Tamiflu (Oseltamivir), are most effective if they are started within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. Your body will fight off influenza with or without the use of antiviral medication; however, antiviral medications may lessen the severity of your symptoms and help you feel better sooner.

Severe Influenza

Your healthcare provider may recommend hospitalization if you have severe influenza, particularly if you have risk factors that predispose you to get very ill. In the hospital, you can be more closely monitored to make sure that your body is able to keep up with the demands of the illness. You may receive supplementary oxygen, hydration through an IV line, or even antibiotics if there is a concern that you have a bacterial illness in addition to the flu. You may also receive treatments to help improve your breathing.

How Can Influenza be Managed at Home?

Influenza can be managed at home using a variety of supportive care measures. These home measures include:

  • Increasing your rest
  • Intaking plenty of fluids in order to replenish the fluids lost through coughing and having an elevated body temperature
  • Using over-the-counter medications, such as Tylenol or ibuprofen, to help with your symptoms of body aches, fever, and chills
  • Using other medications, such as prescription cough medicine, to help with respiratory symptoms
  • Drinking warm fluids, such as tea with honey or lemon, to help soothe a sore throat

Influenza Prevention

According to the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department (SBCPHD), "annual flu vaccination is the best way to prevent the flu and the flu-related complications that could lead to hospitalization, and at times can lead to death."

Luckily, your ability to prevent influenza each season is largely under your control when you use proper respiratory measures and get vaccinated.

Respiratory Hygiene

The principles of protecting yourself from influenza are similar to those of protecting yourself from any other kind of contagious respiratory virus. You should avoid people who appear ill, making sure to keep a distance from people who are actively coughing or sneezing. Make sure to wash your hands frequently with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and avoid touching your face. When in a crowded public space, wearing a facial covering can further reduce your risk.

Influenza Vaccines (“The Flu Shot”)

One of the biggest steps you can take in protecting yourself from the flu is getting vaccinated. Each year, scientists use data from other parts of the world and their influenza seasons in order to predict which influenza strains will be most prominent during the flu season in the United States. Scientists use this information to create a new, specific influenza vaccine, which typically becomes available in the early fall of each year.

According to the CDC, getting vaccinated against the flu can reduce your chances of contracting the flu by between 40 and 60 percent. There are multiple types of vaccines available, including injected forms and nasal sprays. For children or adults who have egg allergies, specific vaccine formulations should be used.

Side effects of the flu shot generally include irritation or pain around the area where the shot was administered, mild body aches, or a low-grade fever. These signs indicate that your body is mounting an immune response to the vaccine, which is the intended goal; they do not indicate that you have contracted the flu virus from the vaccine.

Who Should Get a Flu Shot?

The CDC advises that everyone age 6 months and older should get vaccinated against influenza. Make sure to call your healthcare provider to ask when they will be getting the flu shot this year, so that you can get vaccinated in time to mount an antibody response before the virus begins to spread more broadly.

Flu shots are offered by some employers, so you can check to see if your company will be hosting a vaccine campaign this fall. Flu shots are also available in pharmacies and even grocery stores throughout the country. You can visit the CDC’s flu vaccine finder to find a flu shot near you.