By Shelby Deering
We’ve all been there. First, there’s that pesky tickle in your throat. Then, you wonder if someone is playing with the thermostat, because you’re suddenly overheating and just as quickly chilled to the bone. Next, a wave of dizziness and exhaustion forces you to pause for a moment or two or three …
Finally, you face reality: You’ve got the flu.
The flu isn’t a pleasant experience for anyone, but you can take comfort in the fact that you’re far from alone. According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, during the 2018- 2019 flu season (running from Sept. 1 through May 18), there were 17,210 reported cases of the flu statewide. Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported between 37 to 43 million flu cases. Wisconsin is comparable to other states.
“Ultimately, people need to be aware that the flu finds its way to just about every state, making it tough to avoid,” says Dr. Andrew Morton, family medicine physician at Mercyhealth Hospital and Medical Center–Walworth.
Even though it’s “tough to avoid” as Morton says, you can arm yourself with knowledge and learn how to raise your defenses against it.
Dr. Javier Gallegos, family care physician at Aurora Health Care in Lake Geneva, explains why fall and winter are synonymous with flu season. “People are indoors more often during the winter. They are in close contact more often and this promotes transmission from person to person,” he says. Another reason he cites is cold temperatures that lead to dry air, “which may dehydrate mucous membranes, preventing the body from effectively defending against respiratory virus infections.” In addition, there’s a lack of sunlight. “Vitamin D production from ultraviolet B in the skin changes with the seasons and affects the immune system,” Gallegos says.
During this time of year, the flu is spread by miniscule droplets created when people cough, sneeze or talk. Gallegos explains, “Once in your body, the flu virus travels through the respiratory tract and binds to cells lining your lungs. They hijack these cells to make more viral particles of their own and spread to other areas.”
The benchmark symptoms of the flu include fever, chills, body aches, fatigue, a runny or stuffy nose and a cough or sore throat. These are inconveniences for many of us. For some, they are enough to cause further complications. These can include dehydration and pneumonia. Ear and sinus infections are often seen in children.
The flu can also worsen long-term medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes.
From Sept. 30, 2018, through May 11, 2019, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported 126 influenza-associated deaths in the state. Gallegos adds, “Of that total, 85 of those were patients 65 years old and older.”
These statistics are enough to make anyone a little nervous, especially since flu is easily contracted. That’s why it’s imperative to do what you can to protect yourself against the illness.
What’s the first line of defense against the flu? The flu shot, of course. “It is very important to get a flu vaccine,” Morton says. “Not only could you avoid getting the flu but being vaccinated will protect our community by inhibiting spread of the illness.”
He notes that it’s best to get the vaccine before the flu becomes widespread. Getting vaccinated before the end of October is ideal, but he says that “vaccinating later than that can still be beneficial.”
Gallegos agrees with this line of thinking, saying, “Getting vaccinated is the most effective way to ward off the virus, and in the event you still get sick, having the vaccination often makes symptoms much more mild.”
In addition to getting a flu shot, there are other ways to fend off the illness, such as covering your mouth while coughing and sneezing, avoiding contact with those who have the flu and frequent handwashing.
Gallegos advises, “Strengthen your immune system by eating well, staying physically active, managing your stress levels and getting enough sleep.”
HOW TO EASE SYMPTOMS
Let’s say you’ve done your due diligence and you still end up with the flu. It is possible, but hopefully your preventative measures along with some self-care will lessen the severity of the symptoms.
“Act fast if you begin to show symptoms,” Gallegos says. “If you develop a fever, chills, body aches, cough or sore throat, it’s a good idea to see your doctor.”
“Symptomatic care directed by a clinical professional can help alleviate certain symptoms,” Morton adds.
The rule of thumb is that if you’re sick, stay home to avoid infecting others. Morton typically recommends the standard care plan of “plenty of rest and fluids.”
Medication is an option as well. “Some individuals can benefit from antiviral medication, but only if it is caught early enough,” Morton says. “You should ask your primary care physician if you would be a candidate.”
Gallegos also shares thoughts on treating the flu with medication, saying, “Medications work best when taken within 48 hours of symptoms starting. Over-the-counter medications can lower fever and relieve aches and pains, but if you have a higher risk of complications, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral drug to treat the flu.”
For most people, the flu lasts from five to seven days. “Flu symptoms usually appear one to four days after being exposed to the virus,” Gallegos says. “For people who’ve had a flu shot, the symptoms may last a shorter amount of time or be less severe.”
AN EVER-CHANGING VIRUS
You might be wondering, “Why are there different strains of the flu? And why do some seasons last longer than others?” Gallegos says, “Flu viruses are constantly changing, which is why the severity of the flu — and the vaccines used to prevent it — are different year to year. Slight genetic changes in viruses over time create different strains and are why people can get the flu more than once. This is also why the flu vaccine must be updated each year to keep up with these evolving viruses.”
The virus changes every year, which can make it more difficult for people’s immune systems to recognize it and fight it off quickly. “Typically, your immune response is more effective against viruses and bacteria that you’ve already encountered. The mutations on the flu virus act like a mask allowing the virus to take hold before it is recognized by your immune system,” Morton says.
Although peak flu season runs from December through February, the virus can survive well into spring. Gallegos says,“According to the CDC, the 2018- 2019 flu season, at 21 weeks, was the longest flu season in a decade.”
The varying length in flu seasons isn’t fully understood, but there are some theories. One is tied to temperature. “Generally, cold weather keeps more people indoors and in close proximity with each other and that is at least part of the reason the virus is able to spread so much in the cold months,” says Morton. “It may not be until the spring before we start to see fewer cases of influenza.”
The moral of the story is that with good lifestyle habits, regular hand washing and an annual flu shot, you just might be able to sidestep this year’s wave of influenza.