Weathering the Storm: What to Do If You Catch the Flu
Imagine you see a weather report for heavy rain. You're headed off to work for the day, and you have your rain coat within easy reach. Do you bring it with you? Of course you do! You bring it with you knowing that, depending on the storm, the raincoat may not be 100 percent effective. But it will go a good long way to keep you dry.
As an infectious disease specialist at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, especially in the months leading up to flu season, I spend a lot of time persuading people to get a flu shot. It really is the best way to prevent getting the flu yourself and to decrease the effect of the flu on the whole community.
According to a recent study reported by the Centers for Disease Control, flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by 40 percent to 60 percent. By taking other precautions, like hand washing and avoiding close contact with those who are ill, in addition to getting a flu shot, you get excellent overall protection.
The sad news is you could still get sick. Just like you could still get soaked in a storm, even if you’re wearing a raincoat. Knowing what to do when you get the flu is key to shortening the illness and decreasing its impact.
You can recognize the flu by its symptoms. Often, flu symptoms start with a fever and body aches. The symptoms that follow are similar to those you get with the common cold: cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headache and tiredness. Some people, especially young children, can have vomiting and diarrhea with the flu. This can be especially dangerous, as it can lead to dehydration.
You can tell the difference between a cold and the flu by the severity. The flu is dramatically worse than a cold. Most people affected by the flu have a difficult time getting out of bed for as long as a week.
If a nasty storm blew in, you would take shelter. You do the same if you find yourself with the flu.
If you are generally healthy and you feel you may have the flu, your case of the flu is likely to be relatively mild. You can "shelter" at home. Stay in bed, avoid contact with others, drink lots of clear liquids, and get plenty of rest. The virus will run its course. Stay home for at least 24 hours your fever is gone, without the use of fever-reducing medication.
Young children, adults 65 years of age and older, pregnant women, and people with certain medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease are at high risk for flu complications and should visit their primary care physician or ExpressCare as soon as possible after symptoms begin. Your health care provider may diagnose you with the flu based on your symptoms or he or she may offer you a test to diagnose the flu. In some cases, having a confirmed diagnosis based on a test result changes the treatment recommendation.
Your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication, which can shorten the duration of the illness and prevent common flu complications, like pneumonia. Starting the medication early is important for preventing complications for people in high risk groups.
Either staying home or going to your primary care provider, depending on your overall health and risks, is the best way to weather the storm and return to your normal activities as quickly and easily as possible, when the storm clears.
Marie George, MD, is the medical director for Infectious Disease at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. Her practice is within the SVMC Multispecialty Practice. “Health Matters” is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care. For more columns like this one, visit svhealthcare.org/wellnessconnection.
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