Medical Column: What’s That Other Virus Called Again?

By: Dr. Stephen Yarbrough 
Family Medicine Resident
Colquitt Regional Medical Center

Influenza, also known as the flu, is a respiratory illness that typically more prevalent in the fall and winter months and affects people of any age. While it has understandably been overshadowed by the COVID pandemic, it is worth remembering the flu can be a severe and even life threatening illness as well. 

What are symptoms of the flu? Symptoms of the flu include fever (temperature of 100.4 ºF or higher), cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headache, or extreme fatigue.  Most of the time symptoms resolve over 2-5 days, however they can be present for more than a week. Sometimes, infection with influenza can lead to pneumonia, which is a complication where infection, either viral or bacterial, accumulates in the lungs. When this occurs, the course of the illness can be prolonged and often results in hospitalization. 

Who is at risk? Really, anyone is at risk for getting the flu, however some people are at increased risk for contracting influenza, or of becoming very sick. These include very young children (especially infants and kids with asthma), adults over the age of 65 (especially those with lung conditions like COPD), and people with decreased immune systems. 

How is the flu diagnosed? While the classic symptoms of the flu are often enough to make a presumptive diagnosis, most times it is best to see your Family Physician who can perform a rapid nasal swab to confirm the diagnosis. It’s also worth seeing the doctor just to make sure there are no symptoms to suggest pneumonia or another complication. 

What is the treatment? In most cases, the treatment of the flu is supportive care and includes getting plenty of rest, staying well hydrated, and treating fever with medicines like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Sometimes, medications such as Tamiflu or Xofluza are prescribed to help shorten the length and severity of symptoms. It is important to realize that such antiviral medications work best if taken within 48 hours of symptom onset, and they are not the same thing as antibiotics, which are ineffective treatment for viral infections such as the flu. However, when complications such as pneumonia do occur, your Family Physician may choose to add an antibiotic.

Can the flu be prevented? Yes, the best way to prevent getting infected with the flu is frequently and thoroughly washing your hands, wearing a mask when in close proximity to persons known to be sick with an upper respiratory infection, and of course getting the influenza vaccine yearly. If you do end up getting the flu, you can help prevent spreading it to others by washing your hands frequently, wearing a mask and coughing into your arm, and by limiting your exposure to others until you are fever free for at least 24 hours without taking any medications to control the fever. 

While in the age of COVID, it is easy to forget about the flu, but you can rest assured that it hasn’t gone away and it hasn’t forgotten about you!