Influenza - Part 1

 

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Influenza - Part 1

October 15, 2014

 

 

What is the flu?

“Flu” is short for influenza.  This describes an infection with the Influenza virus.  Sometimes people use the term “flu” to describe other illnesses caused by viruses such as gastrointestinal viruses as the “stomach flu”.  However, for the purposes of this article, we will use the term “flu” only to describe a respiratory infection with Influenza.

 

What is different about this flu season?

This flu season is different because we have more strains of the flu going around and causing problems.  Several months ago, a strain of flu commonly called the “swine flu” started causing infection.  This is a continuing problem and has now spread to a worldwide phenomenon.  This virus is referred to as H1N1 because of the types of proteins on its capsule.  Additionally, our “usual” flu season will start and it usually is caused by either some type of Influenza A and/or Influenza B.

 

What can I do to protect myself?

There are several aspects of self-care that are important when it comes to flu or any other respiratory illness.  These can be broken down into three major categories including Prevention, Recognition, and Treatment.

 

What is important to remember about prevention?

There are several ways to prevent you from becoming ill with the flu.  These include avoiding exposure, preventing infection in spite of exposure, and decreasing the likelihood that you will get severely ill if you are infected.

 

How can I prevent exposure?

First of all, you should try to avoid large crowds of people when it is reasonable to do so.  Secondly, you should follow strict hand washing procedures using soap and water or hand sanitizer when soap and water is not available. If you know someone is ill, you should not expose yourself to that person or you should make sure that person wears a mask.

 

How can I prevent infection if I cannot avoid exposure?

One of the problems with influenza is that often someone is contagious before they know they are.  The best way to protect yourself if you’re going to get exposed is to get vaccinated so that you can build up an immune response that will fight off the flu virus before you get sick.

 

How can I improve my chances of a mild case of flu in the event that I do get infected?

Of course, the healthier you are before infection, the better your chances for a milder case of the flu.  Though the severity of the flu is also determined by the nature of the virus, the health of the infected person also plays a role.  You should make sure you eat well, get enough sleep, and control your stress level.  If you have a chronic illness, make sure you are doing everything to keep it under control. There are some “natural” or “herbal” preparations that are being marketed for protection against flu.  One should proceed with extreme caution regarding these agents since none of them have been appropriately tested.

 

Where can I get more information?

There are several websites that offer excellent educational information. These include WebMD and cdc.gov. Of course, all people are different and a “one-size-fits-all” approach is usually not useful.  Talk to your doctor about your health status and discuss what prevention and treatment approach is right for you.

 

This column does not establish a physician-patient relationship. The “Ask Dr. Khare” column is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in the “Ask Dr. Khare” column!

 

6 more questions about Influenza

 

1. I think I might have the flu. What should I do?

Until you are evaluated, you should rest, stay away from public places and protect others at home from your infection.  Over the counter medications can offer relief from symptoms. If you are in a high risk group or are having more severe symptoms should call your doctor and ask for advice.  Your doctor’s office will determine your treatment based on their own office procedure.  You may be asked to come in to the office for evaluation, physical examination and treatment.  Remember to wear a mask when in your doctor’s waiting room to protect others.

 

2. How can I protect others at home from my infection?

Since influenza is transmitted via respiratory droplets, the infected person should wear a mask if he is within 6 feet of other family members.  Additionally, the entire household should follow strict handwashing guidelines at all times or use an alcohol based hand sanitizer. The “sick person” should cover your his cough or sneeze appropriately.

 

3. How should the “sick person” be isolated in the home?

In general, if the “sick person” stays in one specific area or room of the home, then it will be easier to prevent transmission of the disease.  As few people as possible should come in contact with the sick person and those who are in high risk groups and children should not be exposed to the sick person.  The caregiver(s) should observe the following guidelines regarding objects with which the sick person comes in contact.

 

4. What about items that the sick person comes in contact with?

Use disposable items such as paper towels and utensils as much as possible. If non-disposable items must be used, they should be washed with hot water and dried thoroughly before reuse.  After removing trash, be sure to wash your hands.  Keep surfaces clean and sanitized with appropriate household cleaner.  Wash clothing and linen separately in hot water and on a hot setting in the dryer if possible.  Handle infected linens and clothing as little as possible.

 

5. Should antibiotics be used?

Antibiotics will not be helpful for influenza.  Of course, as with all viral infections, one can develop an additional bacterial infection such as pneumonia.  If you have persistent cough, shortness of breath or other signs of pneumonia, you may benefit from antibiotics.

 

6. How do antivirals fit in with the treatment plan?

There are some antivirals that have been shown to be useful in the treatment of influenza. These must be started within the first 48 hours of symptoms.  They do not make the infection “go away” immediately but may make the infection less severe and shorten the duration of the symptoms by a few days.  Of course, as with all medications, there are side effects and risks involved.  You should discuss with your doctor what are the relative risks versus benefits of antivirals as they apply to your specific situation.

 

 

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