When October rolls around each year, many people’s minds turn to thoughts of bonfires, jack-o-lanterns, and the approaching holidays. But the changing of the weather indicates something other than just upcoming holidays. It’s also the start of flu season, which lasts all the way till the following May.
There are three different types of flu, or influenza: Type A, Type B, and Type C. Both A and B are caused by a virus that attacks a person’s respiratory system, and are part of the “flu season” that overtakes the United States every October to May. Type C is a much milder version of the virus, and is not generally thought to be a part of the epidemics that require vaccination and treatment each year.
The most recognizable strain of influenza, known as H1N1, is part of the Type A family. Flu strains that are referred to by animal names, such as bird flu and swine flu, are strains of the virus that originated in an animal, rather than in a person. One of the reasons that the flu is such a serious illness is that the virus has the ability to jump between species.
The flu vaccine is designed to prevent the virus that causes H1N1, other strains of Type A influenza, and Type B influenza, from attacking a person’s body. For those who have dealt with a mild flu, or who think that a few sniffles are nothing to be concerned about, think again: the flu virus is a crafty bundle of genes that actually puts the body to work making more of the virus, by hijacking the way our cells work. Not only does this make it hard to get rid of the flu once you have it, it also makes it difficult for the body to properly attack the virus.
Basic Signs of Flu
Unfortunately for us, identifying the flu can be difficult, because the symptoms are often easy to confuse for other respiratory illnesses. The basic signs of the flu include:
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Sore throat
- Muscle aches
- Fever, which may include chills
- Feeling fatigued
- Vomiting or diarrhea
Given that most people will only experience one or two of these symptoms at the start, or they may experience more in very mild forms, it can be easy to chalk them up to a simple cold, seasonal allergies, or even just a stressful day at work or school. Often, we don’t know we have the flu until it has advanced to a stage that is much harder to treat.
Be On Guard
So how can you identify the flu from a cold, or another ailment, during flu season? Here are some differences to be aware of when identifying flu:
- Almost everyone who has the flu will have a fever. If you suspect that you or your child has the flu, check for fever first thing. Colds almost never include a fever.
- With the flu, you will likely feel sick “everywhere” – like your whole body is completely exhausted and sore. Most of the time, a cold only makes your head and face feel sick.
- With the flu, your symptoms will become more pronounced very quickly – even within the course of a single day. A cold takes several days to build, and even at its height, it won’t be as severe as the flu.
While these things may be relatively simple to watch for in yourself, you may have a harder time recognizing when a case of the sniffles is more than just a cold in a child. Here are some things to be on the lookout for when dealing with a sick child:
- If they act as though they simply cannot wake up, or they don’t interact when they are awake, their cold may be more than just a cold.
- If a young child does not want to be held, that could be a sign that their body is sore.
- If their fever includes a rash, you should get to a doctor to check for the flu.
- If you can’t get them to eat or drink anything at all, or they show other signs of dehydration, such as no tears when they cry, you could be looking at something more serious than a cold.
If any of these symptoms show themselves when you have cold-like symptoms, it’s likely that you are experiencing the early signs of the flu.
When you suspect that you have the flu, the first thing you should do is seek treatment from a doctor. If the signs of a flu are all present, your doctor may choose to not perform any tests on you. However, most of the time, you will first be tested for the flu.
The flu test is known as the Rapid Influenza Diagnostic Test, or RIDT, and can be used to test for Type A and Type B Influenza, including H1N1. The nurse or doctor will take a swab from inside your nostril, and use it to test for the flu. This is generally best done within the first 48 hours of getting sick, or at least the first four days, which is why it is so important that you go to the doctor the minute you start to suspect it’s more than just a cold.
While the RIDT will be able to accurately diagnose the presence of the influenza virus, it cannot tell what type of specific flu strain you may have. In order to identify a specific type of flu, a viral culture would have to be performed, which can take up to two weeks in a lab.
Most of the time, flu tests are very accurate. Occasionally, a flu test may return a negative result when a person does have the flu, usually when they’ve already begun shedding the virus and are in the healing stage. False positives are rarer, but being treated for the flu if you don’t have it is very unlikely to hurt you – so it’s best to assume that the test is accurate, and be treated accordingly.
Other Ways to Identify the Flu
Maybe you’ve been feeling ill for several days or weeks, but you weren’t able to get tested or treated for the flu – or the thought that it could be the flu never even crossed your mind. Here are some ways to recognize the flu after the initial symptoms have already been present for some time:
- An overwhelming sense of fatigue stays with you for a few weeks, even after your fever and other symptoms are gone.
- You develop a cough that you can’t seem to get rid of, even after other symptoms are gone.
- Your spouse, child, roommate, or other close live-in family member gets sick with a fever, fatigue, and other flu symptoms shortly after you do.
If any of these things happen, it’s very likely that you had the flu, and are now in the healing stages. This can help you know what to look out for if you begin to feel the same way in the future. At this stage, it’s very important that you stay hydrated and get plenty of rest. You are no longer contagious, but your immune system is still compromised, so stay away from anyone else who is sick if you can help it.
Remember, unlike chicken pox, you don’t build a natural immunity to the flu. You can get the flu again in the same season, and you are more susceptible to catching it again if your immune system is weakened. But just because you have had the flu, or flu season is nearly over, does not mean you shouldn’t get the vaccine. If you didn’t get the vaccine within the last 12 months, it’s a good idea to go ahead and do so again, to help give your immune system a fighting chance for next time.
Causes of Flu
Many old wives’ tales tell us that getting too cold, or getting cold and wet at the same time, can cause the flu. But that is simply not true. The reason that the flu is prevalent during the cold weather season has nothing to do with the cold; the virus has a natural life cycle from October to May, even in warm-weather climates.
The only way that a person catches the flu virus is by inhaling the virus. It can be airborne naturally, or due to being sneezed or coughed out by someone else. You can get it from simply breathing, or through kissing, eating, or touching your face with your hands after touching an object that carries the virus.
The virus can live for longer periods of time indoors, and in drier climates. And because we naturally spend more time inside during the cold weather, we are more apt to catch it. So, you see, fresh air really is good for you, even in the winter!
A person can start spreading the flu even before they feel a single symptom. Your first sign of fatigue, fever, cough, or runny nose may not show up for a full day after you are contagious. And you remain contagious for about a week after symptoms start showing up. For this reason, it’s best to stop attending school or work right away when you realize you have a fever and aching muscles.
Treatment and Prevention
You should now have a great idea of how the flu virus works, how to identify it in all its various stages, and how it is diagnosed. So long as you are otherwise healthy, and keep yourself away from anyone with a compromised immune system while you are contagious, the flu isn’t usually life threatening. In fact, an untreated flu will usually heal itself naturally. You may not feel all that great for a couple of weeks, but you will eventually be back on your feet.
However, there are always exceptions. If the flu is spread to an elderly person, a baby, or someone with a compromised immune system, that person could face a far more dire experience. In order to stop that from happening, getting a flu vaccination is very important. While you may not need the vaccination to stay alive during flu season, the fact that you won’t be spreading the illness yourself could keep someone else alive.
In addition to getting the vaccination, it’s important to follow basic hygiene rules during the winter. Wash your hands often, especially before eating, and be sure to stay away from anyone exhibiting signs of a cold. Cover your mouth if you cough or sneeze, and don’t try to be the “good employee” by coming in to work if you feel sick.
Treating the flu is usually accomplished through decongestants, lots of hydration, cough medicine, and ibuprofen or acetaminophen for fever reduction. If a doctor prescribes it, you may also take an anti-viral medication. This treatment usually only works in the first 48 hours of catching the virus, and most people don’t realize early enough that they have the flu for this to be effective.
You Can Always Catch Up
It’s often hard for students or employees to feel as though they can afford to miss school or work when they have the flu. After all, if you are contagious for up to a full week, that’s a lot of class, or a lot of work, missed! But remember: you can always catch up. Making your health, and the health of those around you, a priority, is far more important than the demands of work or school.
While the flu does make you tired and achy, you can usually sit up in bed and even move around some. You may be able to get your work emailed to you, or sit in on class virtually, in order to not miss anything. Whatever you choose to do, pat yourself on the back for being a good citizen and stopping the spread of flu before it becomes an epidemic.