Influenza, often referred to as the seasonal flu, is widespread across Minnesota.
The Minnesota Department of Health has been tracking influenza activity, and the flu season is expected to run through March and into April.
Influenza is a very contagious virus that affects the lungs and upper airways. Symptoms can be mild, but can also be severe and life threatening. The seasonal flu is not the same as the “stomach flu,” which causes vomiting and diarrhea.
University of Minnesota Physicians Broadway Family Medicine Clinic resident physician Catherine Hansen, MD, answers some frequently asked questions about influenza.
What are the symptoms of influenza?
- Fever and chills
- Body aches or muscle aches
- Dry, persistent cough
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Extreme fatigue
These symptoms can develop quite suddenly and are usually more severe than a common cold.
What causes influenza? How does it spread?
Influenza is caused by a virus that spreads through droplets in the air when a sick person coughs, sneezes, or talks.
The virus can also live on objects, such as phones, keyboards, silverware, and door handles. It can spread when someone touches an object with the virus on it and then touches his/her mouth, nose, or eyes.
Important note: A person with influenza may be able to spread the virus to others before showing (or experiencing) any symptoms.
Who is at a higher risk for complications from influenza?
Influenza can infect anyone. But, certain groups of people are most at risk of severe infection, which can lead to complications and even death.
GROUPS AT HIGHER RISK:
- Young children, especially age two and under
- Senior adults, age 65 and older
- People with chronic illness, such as diabetes, kidney disease, or heart disease
- People with illnesses that affect their breathing, e.g., asthma or COPD
- Pregnant women and postpartum women
- People who are obese
- People with weakened immune systems or taking medications that decrease immune system function (like corticosteriods)
How is the stomach flu different from the seasonal flu (or influenza)?
Influenza (or the seasonal flu) is commonly confused with gastroenteritis (the stomach flu). These are two very different illnesses. The stomach flu causes vomiting and diarrhea, and usually does not cause respiratory symptoms (like a cough). Although the stomach flu is not pleasant, it is generally a much less severe illness than influenza.
How can you protect yourself and those you love from the seasonal flu?
Get the flu shot! The CDC recommends the influenza vaccine (also known as the flu shot) for ANYONE six months of age and older. The flu shot is safe for pregnant women.
Even if you do not have a medical condition that puts you at risk of serious illness, getting the flu shot can protect others from becoming seriously ill or dying. It’s herd immunity: The more people who get the flu shot, the fewer people who become ill. When you get the flu shot, you are not only protecting yourself, you are protecting newborn babies, pregnant ladies, grandparents, and people with chronic illness.
If you haven’t received the flu vaccine yet, there is still time. Call the clinic at 612-302-8200 to schedule an appointment.
Who should NOT get the flu shot?
The flu shot cannot be given to babies under six months of age and people that have had a severe reaction to the vaccine in the past.
Previously, people with egg allergies were advised not to get the flu shot. However, now the flu shot is made without egg protein, and it is totally safe for people with egg allergies to get the flu shot.
Does the flu shot work?
Yes, the flu shot works! The vaccine uses the body’s immune system to build antibodies against influenza. The body forms a memory of the virus so it can fight off the infection before you become ill.
The flu virus is constantly changing, and every year the flu shot protects against a different strain of the virus. That is why it is important to get the shot every single year.
Sometimes the vaccine does not provide complete protection against the flu virus, and people can get sick with the flu. However, that does not mean that the flu shot did not work. Even if a person gets the flu, having the vaccine can prevent severe symptoms, complications, and even death.
More about the effectiveness of the flu vaccine: www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/vaccineeffect.htm.
Can you get the seasonal flu from the flu shot?
No, you cannot get the flu from the vaccine! Some people experience soreness where the injection was given, mild fatigue, and muscle aches. Rarely, a person can experience a low grade fever after receiving the flu shot–happens to about 1 person out of 100.
It’s important to remember that these side effects are mild compared to full-blown influenza. They are a signal that the immune system is working, not an indication that the person has the flu.
How is influenza treated?
Influenza is viral, so it cannot be treated with antibiotics. It usually resolves on its own, 10-14 days after a person is infected. It’s primarily treated with rest, fluids, and managing symptoms with over-the-counter medications.
There are antiviral medications that can help your body fight the seasonal flu. They are only effective if taken within the first two-three days after a person becomes infected. Because of this, you should see a doctor right away if you suspect you may have influenza. Call the clinic at 612-302-8200 to scheduled an appointment.
If you are diagnosed with the seasonal flu, prevent spreading it to others.
PREVENT THE SPREAD OF THE FLU:
- Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently.
- Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
- Do not share food items or utensils.
- Stay away from others until your symptoms are gone, especially those who are most at risk.
- Disinfect shared items, surfaces, phones, and other places where germs can live.