We are currently in the middle of a severe flu season and influenza is widespread in almost every part of the United States. Influenza is an illness that is caused by various strains of viruses that infect the respiratory tract. They can cause a variety of symptoms, including fever, cough, congestion, sore throat, headaches, body aches and fatigue. There are also potential complications that can come with influenza, including bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, or worsening of other chronic medical conditions.
This current flu season already has caused a large number of deaths in the United States, so it is important to know how to try and prevent flu, to recognize it if it occurs and to know what treatments may be helpful in the event of an influenza infection.
One challenge with influenza is that a variety of other illnesses can have similar symptoms and it may be difficult to identify. The common cold is another respiratory illness that is similar to influenza, but is caused by different viruses. Flu is usually more severe and intense than the common cold and colds are more likely to cause a runny or stuffy nose than influenza. The common cold is usually milder than flu, and generally doesn’t lead to serious health conditions. Sometimes special testing is needed to differentiate between influenza and the common cold, as it is not always easy to do this based only on symptoms.
There are many ways to try and prevent influenza, but getting a yearly vaccination is still the best way. The vaccination is manufactured according to what viruses are most likely to be common for the upcoming flu season. Thus, the vaccine changes every year, so it is recommended for everyone over the age of 6 months to get a new shot before every flu season. The flu shot is not guaranteed to prevent influenza in everyone who gets the vaccine, but it can make the illness less severe in those who do contract it, and can decrease the likelihood of serious complications and hospitalizations. Other things that can help limit the spread of the influenza viruses include avoiding contact with sick individuals, washing hands frequently, keeping surfaces clean and disinfected, and covering both your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing.
If someone does become ill and influenza is suspected, most of the time they have mild symptoms and likely do not need medical care or antiviral drugs. In these mild cases, individuals should stay home and avoid contact with others, except to seek medical care. If symptoms are severe, or an individual is in a group that is at high risk to develop complications such as young children, those over age 65, pregnant women, and people with certain medical conditions, they should contact their medical provider, or go in for an evaluation. In certain circumstances, anti-viral medications may be prescribed to hopefully shorten the duration of illness and prevent serious complications. Commonly available over-the-counter cough and cold medications may help with other symptoms, as well. It is recommended that individuals with influenza try and avoid being around others until they are fever free for at least 24 hours without the use of medications.
If you suspect that you have the flu or other viral illness, please contact Health Services at (208) 426-1459 for an appointment, or utilize urgent care services at Health Services from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Wednesdays. Flu vaccine is available at Health Services and most pharmacies in the community.