By Manisha Shah, D.O.
Most people dread getting sick. The winter season, notoriously known for viruses such as influenza, causes various ailments. The severity increases among extremes of ages, pregnant women, and persons of all ages with chronic medical conditions. If an individual does contract influenza, early detection and treatment can decrease the duration of infection. Ultimately, the best approach to remaining illness-free occurs with vaccination.
Traditionally, influenza viruses (most commonly influenza A and influenza B) transmit through large-particle respiratory droplets from one person to another. Inconspicuous transmission occurs when a person coughs or sneezes. Thus, public spaces serve as a breeding ground for viral contamination. Preventative measures are vital to avoid communal spread.
Individuals with an infection display symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat, fatigue, and body aches. Young children may present with nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting. Influenza and COVID-19 infections cause similar symptoms, however, COVID-19 infections continue throughout the year. Viral testing differentiates the two. Early detection with testing allows for maximum treatment benefits and quicker resolution of symptoms.
Health care providers usually diagnose the flu using a nasal swab in combination with a throat swab. Depending on the test, results are available within minutes to several hours. Symptomatic patients should test as close to the onset of infection to maximize detection of the virus. Symptoms resolve within three to seven days (for a course without complications), although cough and fatigue may persist for more than two weeks.
The CDC recommends the influenza vaccine, known as the flu shot, for all people age six months and older. The influenza vaccine provides the most effective prevention against illness and its complications. The level of protection the vaccination provides depends on age and health of the recipient, the type of vaccine, the type of circulating influenza viruses in the community, and the similarity between circulating viruses and those in the vaccine. Eligible children under eight years of age without a previous influenza vaccination history should receive two doses of the vaccine four weeks apart. Vaccination does not guarantee protection from influenza, however, it decreases the risk significantly. If symptoms arise, viral testing should still occur because vaccination status does not preclude an individual from treatment.
Treatment options exist for people testing positive for influenza. Besides supportive measures such as fluid hydration, acetaminophen, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications for fever and body aches, antiviral medications can curb the course of an infection. The antiviral medication a health care provider chooses will depend on the age of the patient and their medical history. These medications may reduce the duration of symptoms, the risk of hospitalization, complications such as ear infections or pneumonia, and death rates in high-risk populations. In addition, antiviral medications have an added benefit of preventing an infection if a close contact tested positive for influenza.
Procedures for infection control include respiratory hygiene and cough etiquette, face masks, and hand hygiene. Following these initial strategies, along with the influenza vaccine, can reduce the ramifications of the flu.
Manisha Shah D.O., is a board-certified family practice doctor, and currently creates content for a medical solutions company.