By Dawn Harris Sherling, M.D., F.A.C.P.
There is an old Edgar Allen Poe story where a man starts walking down a catacomb path, thinking he is just going on an ordinary journey, when his companion starts to bury him alive. The companion is carrying all the tools he needs to bury his “friend” and is even hinting that he might do so, but the man ignores all the warnings and merrily continues alongside his companion.
That’s sort of what the flu is like.
Just like the man, oblivious to the signs he is being given, no one thinks the flu might kill them. It is often lumped together with the ordinary cold, as in “cold and flu season” or “cold and flu remedies.” This is an unfortunate juxtaposition because it minimizes what the flu is and what it can do to the human body. We ignore warnings about the flu at our own peril.
The flu, or influenza, is not a bad cold. It is also not a stomach virus. If you have the sniffles and a low-grade fever less than 100.5, odds are, it is not the flu.
The flu is an infection with Influenza virus A or B. And if you’ve had it, you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. Getting out of bed might prove challenging. Every muscle in your body will ache. Your temperature will likely go above 101. You may not feel like eating and have some nausea. Most people will have a little bit of a runny nose, possibly a sore throat, and oftentimes a cough. That’s what the flu has in common with a cold, which is caused by a different bunch of viruses. But you’ve never had a cold like this. When you have the flu, it is a struggle to do anything—at least for the first few days and up to a week. After that, and with a good immune system and a touch of luck (a healthy immune system does not guarantee recovery from the flu), you will start to feel better. But, unlike the common cold, it can take a month or longer to fully recover from the flu.
That’s what happens to most people who have the flu. Other people don’t get better after a few days. They get worse. And while it is usually the very old, the very young, people who are already sick with a chronic disease, or pregnant women who get life threatening complications from the flu, almost every internist, pulmonologist, and infectious disease doctor has a story of at least one formerly healthy, young or middle-aged adult who succumbed to the flu.
Who might this young person who does not survive the flu be? In truth, it could be any of us. And that’s what is most scary about the flu. It can strike down anyone. For the 2017-2018 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated nearly 80,000 deaths in the U.S. were caused by flu. Of these, over 10,000 occurred in adults 18-64 years old (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/2017-2018.htm).
What can you do to protect yourself from becoming a victim of the flu? First, unlike the man in the Edgar Allen Poe story, recognize that you are at risk. Second, get a flu shot. Any given flu season, it’s usually about 50% effective at preventing infection from influenza. So, the flu shot may not keep you from getting the flu. But neither will your seat belt prevent you from getting into a car accident. It will, however, protect you from dying if you should get into an accident. And that’s the best sales pitch for the flu shot. Very few people who have had the vaccination wind up in the hospital with the flu, and even fewer wind up sick enough to have to go to the ICU. If you should get the flu, the CDC estimates that getting the flu shot reduces the risk of winding up in the ICU by 82% in adults (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/vaccines-work/vaccineeffect.htm).
If, despite your best efforts, you should contract the flu, the best thing you can do is rest, drink lots of fluids, and take anti-inflammatory medication to feel better. If you contact your doctor within the first few days of getting sick, he or she can prescribe a medication that may shorten the course of the flu by a day or two. The best thing you can do for your friends and coworkers if you are sick is to stay away. Keep sick kids out of school too. The flu can quickly turn into a horror story, and we should all try to keep each other safe during flu season.