OakLeaf Medical Network Healthy Viewpoints, Winter 2003
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Dr. Kyle J. Dettbarn

Basics of the Flu

By Kyle J. Dettbarn, MD
Internal Medicine, Pulmonary Medicine, Critical Care Medicine and Sleep Medicine
Eau Claire Medical Clinic, Eau Claire

Influenza, otherwise known as the flu, is an acute respiratory illness caused by various strains of either influenza A or influenza B viruses. The flu predominantly occurs during the winter months. It is estimated that 10-20% of Americans get the flu each year and this results in approximately 114,000 hospitalizations. Unfortunately, flu complications result in 36,000 US deaths annually. This article will outline the symptoms of the flu, how it is spread, what needs to be done to prevent infection, those who are at especially high risk for complications, and treatment options.

Millions of people worldwide are infected with the influenza viruses yearly. In most cases it is a self-limited illness. The most common symptoms associated with the flu are fevers (which can be extremely high), headache, fatigue or feeling “rundown”, a dry cough, sore throat, a runny nose, and generalized body aches. Other common symptoms in children include an upset stomach, vomiting, and diarrhea.

The flu is spread either by direct contact with infected secretions or by breathing in the virus. Sneezing and coughing by infected individuals is the most effective way of spreading the virus. Close contacts either breathe in the air-borne virus or come in contact with a surface recently touched by someone infected. This results in infection when the person then touches either their nose, mouth, or eyes. Adults are typically contagious from one day before developing symptoms to up to 7 days after getting sick. Children may be contagious longer.

There are several ways to prevent the flu. The single best way is to get a flu vaccination each fall. Flu vaccinations do not eliminate the possibility of getting the flu, but dramatically decrease the symptoms when you do. Other basic ways to prevent infection include avoiding close contact with people who have the flu, staying home when you are sick, covering your mouth or nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, washing your hands frequently, and to avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Despite these preventative measures, thousands each year will still get the flu.

Although in most cases the flu is a self-limited disease, there are some serious, associated complications. These include pneumonia, dehydration, worsening of chronic medical conditions, respiratory failure, and even death. Those who are at especially high risk are people 65 years of age and older, those with chronic medical conditions including heart disease, lung disease, and kidney disease, pregnant women, and children between 6 months and 23 months of age. These people are the ones who should be aggressively targeted for yearly flu vaccinations.

Fortunately, we do have medications effective at reducing the severity of flu symptoms. These anti-viral medications are amantadine, rimantidine, zanamavir, and oseltamivir. All of these require a doctor’s prescription and treatment lasts for 5 days. However, these medications need to be started within 2 days of the onset of symptoms, otherwise, they will be ineffective. Other treatment options include getting plenty of rest, drinking a lot of liquids, and avoiding tobacco or alcohol. Of special note, aspirin should be avoided in children younger than 18 due to its association with Reye’s syndrome.

It is very difficult to avoid the flu and unfortunately a large number of us will get it this year. In the vast majority we will feel poorly for a few days but will quickly get better. If, however, your symptoms seem unusually severe, such as the inability to catch your breath, pain with deep breaths, or a cough productive of yellow or green phlegm, you should consult your health-care provider immediately.

For more information, call Dr. Dettbarn, Internal Medicine, Pulmonary Medicine, Critical Care Medicine and Sleep Medicine at Eau Claire Medical Clinic » 715.830.9990