Dr. Jim Wilde estimates that the last time he had the flu was about 25 years ago. A third-year resident at the time, he still remembers the wallop it dealt him. “I felt like I’d been run over by a truck,” he says.
Since then, as a pediatric emergency room physician at the Georgia Health Sciences Medical Center, Dr. Wilde has made sure to get the flu shot every year. “It’s just the responsible thing to do,” he says.
Now it’s the responsible thing for all of us to do. As of two years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its recommendation on who should receive flu shots. Previously, only high-risk populations—the elderly and those with certain disease conditions—were recommended to receive the vaccine. Today it’s recommended that everyone 6 months and older receive the flu vaccine. (The flu shot is not approved for babies younger than 6 months.)
Why the change? The H1N1 virus, commonly known as the bird flu, came into circulation about two years ago. It’s believed that H1N1 could lead to a flu pandemic sometime in the future. Vaccination could help prevent or slow down a flu crisis situation.
When To Vaccinate
According to Dr. Wilde, this year’s flu strains are different from those that were common during the previous two years. Which means you can’t count on protection from last year’s vaccine and should get a flu shot this year.
While you can get the flu vaccine anytime during the season, it’s better to get it early rather than later. “You don’t want to get caught,” says Dr. Wilde. “It takes two to four weeks to build up antibodies.”
As in previous years, the vaccine is available in two forms: an injection of the “killed” form of the vaccine and FluMist, an inhaled form that contains a “live” version of the virus.
FluMist is not recommended for those over age 49, young children or those with pulmonary problems. But it is an option for anyone who is afraid of needles, and it may also produce more antibody responses than the injection, says Dr. Wilde. And while the chance of fever or other reactions may be slightly higher with FluMist, it’s important to note that the “live” virus in FluMist has been modified and will not give you the flu.
The Flu Cycle
Influenza, like the rotovirus or rhinovirus, is a winter virus. No one really knows why we don’t get the flu in the summer—the virus just arrives with the changing of the leaves. In North America, flu season is typically thought to be November through March, and most commonly peaks in February. But peak times differ across the country—flu that peaks in January in California may not peak until late February in Augusta, says Dr. Wilde.
While flu and a cold may start with similar symptoms—cough, sore throat and fever—what makes flu different from a cold is how rapidly these symptoms progress. “It’s not uncommon for one of those three to show up earlier and the others to show up within a few hours,” says Dr. Wilde. “And once the symptoms start, they tend to be very, very intense for flu, for about three to five days, including fever, which can last about four to six days.” These intense symptoms also include headache and muscle aches all over the body, a hallmark of influenza and the cause of that “run over by a truck” feeling.
And while some of us may complain about getting “stomach flu,” gastrointestinal viruses are actually completely different from influenza, says Dr. Wilde. While influenza can lead to vomiting and diarrhea, it’s not common. “Twenty to 30 percent of kids will have that, and adults less than that,” says Dr. Wilde.
Recovering From Flu
No one likes being sick—and the flu can be a tough illness to recover from. Your throat is sore, your head aches and your whole body feels like it’s been put through the wringer. The best treatment is symptom management: Medication to ease the headache, sore throat, coughing and fever, bed rest and plenty of fluids.
Antibiotics and antiviral medications are often asked about as possible treatments. But because influenza is a virus, antibiotics—which treat bacterial infections—do nothing to treat flu symptoms. In fact, overuse of antibiotics can actually cause harm by increasing the likelihood of antibiotic-resistant disease.
In the case of antiviral medications like Relenza and Tamiflu, the CDC recommends that only patients who are at high risk from serious complications from the flu receive these medications. This includes those older than 65, children younger than 2, pregnant women and patients with certain medical conditions. However, says Dr. Wilde, it’s important to note that even antivirals only shorten flu duration by a day or so at most and must be given within 48 hours of symptom onset for any benefit.
When Flu Turns Into an Emergency Situation
“The major complication of flu is pneumonia,” says Dr. Wilde. Patients with the flu should see their doctor if they have any of the following symptoms:
• Symptoms of pneumonia, including chest pain, rapid breathing, continued fever and coughing up blood.
• Fever lasting longer than five days
• Trouble breathing
• Altered mental status
In most cases, patients with the flu will recover on their own, with symptom management and rest.
Plus, that illness you had last winter that you thought was the flu? It more likely was a bad cold due to other viruses. If you’re a gambler, think about it this way: You have a better chance of seeing some rain today than you do of getting the flu this season.
“The odds of getting flu in any single season other than a pandemic is approximately five to 10 percent,” says Dr. Wilde. “So the odds of getting flu are only one in 10, so that means the average person probably wouldn’t get flu more than about once every 10 years.”
Danielle Wong Moores is an Augusta freelance writer.