Vital Signs: Be ready to fight flu season with knowledge, hydration and prevention

Flu season typically spikes after the New Year, so now is the time to brush up on your flu facts. While most of us will overcome the virus with a little rest and some TLC, the flu can be a serious illness. It’s important to know whether you or a loved one could be at risk for complications and which symptoms may indicate that it’s time to see a doctor.

Is it the flu?

Symptoms of influenza (“the flu”) can vary from person to person. However, some of the telltale signs that you have the flu include:

  • Fever and/or chills
  • Body aches
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Runny nose or sinus congestion
  • Headache
  • Gastrointestinal upset, such as nausea or diarrhea

Many of these symptoms are associated with other illnesses. Typically, what often distin-guishes the flu from other conditions is the sudden onset of symptoms and the overall feeling of malaise.

How to treat;

The most important thing you can do if you come down with the flu is to rest and stay hydrated. Listen to Grandma and eat that chicken soup. It will help replenish the fluids lost and is a good comfort food. Relieve fever, aches and pains with acetaminophen and treat symptoms like sore throat with lozenges or other over-the-counter remedies.

The average person should begin to feel better after several days, but it may take a week or two to get back to 100 percent.

When to see a doctor

Some of us have a higher risk of complications from the flu as a result of our own personal characteristics or health status. If you fall into one of these categories, then you should be in contact with your healthcare provider when you exhibit flu-like symptoms:

  • Younger than 6 months
  • Older than 65
  • Pregnant
  • Resident of a nursing home
  • American Indian or Alaskan Native
  • Those with asthma
  • Diagnosed with a chronic medical condition (examples include emphysema and other chronic lung diseases, heart disease, diabetes and other endocrine disorders, metabolic disorders, kidney disease, liver disease and neurologic disorders)
  • Those with weakened immune systems (people undergoing chemotherapy or HIV patients)
  • Children ages 18 and younger on aspirin therapy
  • People who are morbidly obese (body mass index greater than 40)

In some instances, the flu virus can be severe and may lead to complications. Concerning signs include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest or abdominal pain
  • Dehydration or inability to keep fluids down
  • Confusion

The flu can lead to pneumonia or trigger severe asthma attacks. Other serious conditions, such as heart attacks, also may be triggered by or mistaken as the flu. For these reasons, it’s important to seek medical treatment if you have any of the symptoms listed above.

What to expect from your physician

When you seek treatment for flu-like symptoms, your doctor may diagnose you with the flu based on local flu prevalence and his or her clinical judgment. In some circumstances — when the results help with treatment decisions or when flu prevalence is low or rapidly changing — he or she may decide to perform a diagnostic test that detects the influenza virus.

Again, most people will recover from the flu within a week or two without any medical care. Antiviral drugs may help prevent serious complications, such as pneumonia, and can reduce symptoms and shorten the duration of illness by one to two days if started early in the course of illness (within the first two days). In general, treatment is targeted to those individuals at highest risk of developing complications from the flu.

Prevention is best

As you may have heard, vaccination is the No. 1 way to prevent the flu. Even if you have not been vaccinated this year, it’s not too late to do so.

There are often multiple strains of the flu virus and some may hit late in the season, so now is better than never.

If you do contract the flu, you can help prevent the virus from spreading to others by staying home until you are fully recovered and by using proper etiquette to cover coughs and sneezes.

Dr. Costi Sifri is an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at the University of Virginia Health System.