This season’s influenza (flu) is worse than usual. There are at least four different types of flu making people sick and experts expect the flu to last several more months. More people are being hospitalized and the number of deaths is expected to triple. In Arkansas, over 70 people have died from flu or its complications at the time we published this article, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The majority of deaths were in people over age 65.
Flu is now widespread in all states, according to the CDC. Flu kills between 12,000 and 50,000 people every year and can send as many as 700,000 people to the hospital. The CDC says that during the average flu season, an estimated 9 – 36 million people have an influenza diagnosis.
The most common flu symptoms include: fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. However, everyone is different, and you may have all, some or none of these symptoms. The most universal aspect of flu is that people feel terrible very quickly.
Both the flu and common cold are respiratory (breathing) illnesses. They are caused by different viruses. Generally, flu symptoms are much worse than a cold and you feel much worse. The flu causes more symptoms, they last longer and they are more intense than a cold. A cold is more likely than the flu to cause a runny or stuffy nose but a cold rarely results in serious complications.
If you or a loved one get the flu, here’s what to do, in terms of medicine.
Medicines called antivirals can lessen the intensity of flu symptoms, shorten the number of days you have symptoms, prevent serious complications and they could save your life.
However, most healthy adults who get the flu do not need antiviral drugs or medical care. They usually are not tested for flu because the test results will not change their treatment. With rest and plenty of liquids, healthy adults will recover in about two weeks. Your doctor may suggest an over-the-counter pain reliever for aches and pains, or something for sinus or chest congestion.
High-risk patients treated differently
Some people are more likely to get flu complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus or ear infections. The flu can make chronic health problems worse. Those who are at high-risk and more likely to get serious flu-related complications include:
- Children younger than age 5
- Adults age 65 or older (up to 85 % of flu deaths occur in those over age 65)
- Residents of nursing homes or other long-term care facilities
- Pregnant women
- American Indians and Alaskan natives
- Those with chronic conditions including asthma, lung disease, heart disease, sickle cell disease, diabetes, kidney or liver disorders, a weakened immune system, extreme obesity, seizure disorders, stroke, cancer or HIV/AIDS.
It’s especially important for high-risk people listed above to be tested for the flu and take an antiviral medicine if they receive a flu diagnosis. They have a higher risk of being hospitalized and dying without medical treatment.
If you are in one of the high-risk categories and think you are coming down with the flu, see your doctor or a flu clinic to be tested. Most flu tests require a health care provider to use a swab to swipe the inside of your nose or back of your throat. The swab is sent to the lab for testing. Results may take one to several hours. There are also rapid diagnostic tests that only take 15 minutes, but they are not as accurate. Ask if an antiviral drug could help you. Only your health care provider can determine if you need an antiviral medicine.
What to take; who can take it
The CDC says these three antivirals are most effective in treating this year’s flu strains:
- oseltamivir or Tamiflu, also available as a generic
- zanamivir or Relenza
- peramivir or Rapivib is given as an IV
You must have a doctor’s prescription to buy antiviral medicine.
Flu antiviral medicines are most effective in treating flu and reducing complications if they are started within 48 hours of the first symptoms. However, even if it is started after 48 hours, it can still help high-risk patients.
Children can take two of the antivirals: oseltamivir (at two weeks and older) and zanamivir (at age 7 and older). Only adults can take peramivir. Pregnant women can take oral oseltamivir.
Side effects from antiviral drugs are not common, but these problems have been reported: nausea, vomiting, dizziness, runny or stuffy nose, cough, diarrhea, headache and some behavior problems.
Too few antiviral prescriptions
Although flu antivirals have been around for many years, only about 20 percent of flu patients are given a prescription for them. Even in high-risk patients with a laboratory-confirmed flu diagnosis, only 37 percent were prescribed antivirals. The CDC recommends that all hospitalized, high-risk and very ill patients with confirmed flu should receive an antiviral.
Antiviral medicines are not the same as antibiotics. Antibiotics should not be taken if you have the flu virus or any other virus. Antibiotics only help with illness caused by bacteria, not viruses. However, if your flu turns into an infection or pneumonia, then your doctor may determine that you also have a bacterial infection that would be helped by antibiotics.
Healthy adults can infect others fully a day before they have symptoms and about a week after symptoms stop. Children are contagious for several days longer than adults.
To help you avoid the flu, the CDC offers this advice:
- Stay away from sick people. If you have the flu, stay home! Flu can spread by droplets that form when a sick person coughs, sneezes or even talks. Flu germs can spread to others up to six feet away.
- Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
- Keep your hands away from your face. Even if your hands are clean or you are wearing gloves, you can be infected by touching a surface or object with flu virus on it and then touching your own mouth, nose or eyes.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work and school, especially if someone is ill.
- Do not share linens, eating utensils or dishes used by flu patients without first washing thoroughly.
- If you haven’t had a flu vaccine yet, get one, is the advice of many experts. This epidemic isn’t over yet.