Lately, I’ve been more paranoid than normal about germs. That’s because this is a really scary flu season – one of the worst in a long time. Doctor’s offices and hospitals are overwhelmed, and people, even children, are dying. And despite getting the flu vaccine, some people are still catching the flu. (But it’s important to keep in mind that many times when they do, they come down with a milder case than they would otherwise.)
Are you worried about catching the flu, too? Here’s what you should know.
It’s contagious. It spreads through tiny droplets when infected people sneeze or cough, and the droplets land in your mouth or nose. (You can also catch it by touching a surface that’s infected with the virus, and then touching your nose, mouth or eyes.) And here’s something you might not know: Those germs can be spread by just talking. Usually, people with the flu are most contagious in the first three to four days into the illness, but it’s possible for people to infect others even before they know they’re sick (or before they have any symptoms). Most people begin to have symptoms around two days after they’re actually infected.
Symptoms come on suddenly. Here’s where the saying, “I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck” is true. You usually won’t hear a horn warning you to get out of the way. Boom – you’re sick. This is different than a cold, when the symptoms usually develop gradually, are less severe than those of the flu, and fever is rare.
Some people are at higher risk. Although you probably know plenty of healthy people at any age who get the flu, there are some who are at higher risk of developing serious complications if they get sick: People 65 and older, pregnant women, young children, and people with certain chronic medical conditions like asthma, heart disease or diabetes.
There are tests for the flu. There are a few specific flu tests that detect the influenza virus in respiratory specimens and can produce results in as little as 10 minutes. But it’s important to note the tests are not always accurate, and are more accurate in children than adults. And, just as important to know is that despite a negative test, you may still be infected with the flu. That’s why some doctors will diagnose you based on your symptoms and their clinical knowledge. Also important is that if you have flu symptoms, you don’t always need to be tested, since those results won’t necessarily change the treatment plan. (Testing might be more important for people who are pregnant or have a weakened immune system.)
There are antiviral drugs. Prescription drugs like Tamiflu, Relenza or Rapivab are sometimes prescribed to treat the flu, and work best if taken within two days of getting sick. They only shorten the time you’re sick by one or two days; but they can help prevent serious complications (like pneumonia), which is helpful if you’re at high risk for those complications. They’re usually taken for five days and can be taken by both children and pregnant women.
When to head for the ER. While it’s true that emergency rooms should be saved for strict emergencies, there are circumstances that may warrant a trip to your nearest hospital. Some warning signs in children: Breathing fast or having trouble breathing…not drinking enough fluids…bluish-colored skin…having trouble waking up or interacting…fever with a rash… symptoms that initially improve but then worsen…extreme irritability…inability to eat…crying without tears or fewer wet diapers than normal. If an adult has sudden dizziness, confusion, pain or pressure in their chest or abdomen; difficulty breathing or is short of breath, an ER visit might be in order.
How to prevent germs that might lead to the flu. You likely know this, but it’s always worth repeating: Wash your hands often, stay well hydrated, prioritize sleep and rest, don’t share pens in public situations like in a store or restaurant, wipe down your phone often (contaminated particles can live on hard surfaces for up to 24 hours), avoid touching your face.
And if you do catch the flu, please stay home! Flu activity can continue as late as May, although it typically peaks in March. The CDC recommends remaining at home for 24 hours after your fever is gone.