The Flu Facts

As I’m sure you’ve heard already, flu season is upon us!   This year, the flu virus has been detected in all 50 states with high activity levels in the South Central and Southeastern United States (CDC, 2012).  The flu typically occurs every year from October through May, with peak months of January and February.  However, a higher number of flu cases have been reported earlier in this season than in the past few years.

Each season, the flu severity is unpredictable and it can vary widely depending on what viruses are spreading, the availability of vaccine, and how well the flu vaccine is matched to the flu viruses that are causing illness.  This year’s vaccine covers two new strains of the virus plus the same H1N1 compared to last year’s vaccine.  Enough of the vaccine supply is available at local pharmacies and doctors’ offices and it’s a good match for the virus this year.   Thus, if you haven’t done so already, please get your flu shot!

So, what is the difference between a cold and the flu?

The flu and common cold are both contagious respiratory illnesses but they are caused by different viruses.  The flu is caused by the Influenza A and B viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs.  The flu usually comes on suddenly; you may or may not have all or some of the symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue.   Most people who get influenza will recover within a few days to a few weeks with very little health compromise.  However, some people, especially those with other chronic conditions and the elderly, can develop complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections, or other secondary infections. 

On the other hand, over 200 viruses can cause a common cold.  The rhinovirus is the most common virus that causes colds. The symptoms of fever, body aches, fatigue and dry cough may be similar in both illnesses but more intense with the flu.  People with colds are more likely to have a runny or a stuffy nose.  Colds usually do not result in serious health problems and/or complications.  Since common cold is caused by a virus, antibiotics will not help. There are prescription medications available for the flu called “antiviral drugs” that can be used to treat the flu.  When used appropriately, these medications can shorten the duration and severity of illness by 1 to 2 days and prevent serious complications.  Laboratory testing can be done to better differentiate between the cold and flu, however, recent studies indicate that adults with mild illness without high risk conditions who are younger than 65 years of age do not require testing or treatment (CDC, 2012).  Treatment with antivirals is recommended to individuals within 48 hours of onset of symptoms but not afterward.  Overuse of antiviral agents can promote resistance of the virus to the medication that could lead to these agents becoming ineffective.  Additionally, antiviral drugs have some side effects including nausea, vomiting, dizziness, runny or stuffy nose, cough, diarrhea, headache and some behavioral side effects. 

Prevention is key!

CDC recommends that all individuals six months of age or older receive the flu vaccine annually.  By getting the flu vaccine you can protect yourself and others from the spread of influenza.  It’s ideal to be vaccinated before the onset of flu activity in the community; however, it’s not too late to be vaccinated now!  The protection of the vaccine should last the entire season.  You can get vaccinated at a local pharmacy and your insurance should cover the cost. 

Other preventative strategies against a cold or flu:

  1.  Wash hands/keyboards/phones/door knobs and other surfaces you may share with others
  2. Cover your mouth with your elbow or a tissue if you have a cough
  3. Don’t share drinks or food with others
  4. Exercise – studies have shown exercise can boost your immune system
  5. Get plenty of rest/sleep
  6. Eat a well-balanced diet

Please call us or stop by the student health center to receive more information on the flu vaccine and over the counter remedies.  For more information please visit our website at http://studentaffairs.loyno.edu/health.

Irina Foxman, ANP

Student Health Services

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