Flu season is here, and it's severe so far. We are seeing widespread cases of the flu virus (influenza) and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), as well as COVID-19. Flu, RSV and COVID are all respiratory viruses but they affect people differently.
In this article, we'll focus mostly on flu, although the prevention strategies discussed here apply to other respiratory viruses as well.
Flu season has been severe so far this year.
The flu typically starts in October and lasts through March, but it can come earlier or later.
Flu often spreads in schools, where children spread it to one another and then take it home to parents and grandparents.
Influenza can be serious, especially for young children, older adults and people with chronic health conditions.
Some kids will encounter flu for the first time this season as COVID prevention measures are relaxed. While many parents know how to protect themselves from contracting influenza (and protecting other members of their household), they may not know much about preventing their kids from getting sick during this high-risk period for contagion.
Children under age 5 who get the flu are more likely to need a doctor's care at some point during their illness. They're at higher risk for hospitalization from complications of influenza than other age groups are, along with dehydration from vomiting or diarrhea (which is common among children when they have the flu).
Flu, RSV and COVID are all respiratory viruses
Flu, RSV and COVID are caused by three different respiratory viruses with traits in common. All three can affect people of all ages.
As for the differences between the viruses, here are a few rules of thumb, although there are plenty of exceptions:
- RSV tends to cause wheezing, and is notorious for causing serious illness in kids under age 5
- Flu tends to cause high fever and malaise
- COVID tends to cause more serious respiratory illness in adults and affect other systems of the body
Beacuse there is overlap of symptoms between all three viruses, it is difficult even for experienced physicians to tell which respiratory virus may be causing your symptoms. Lab tests are available to determine which virus is present. Co-infection (infection at the same time) with more than one virus is possible.
For mild illness, it may not matter which virus is responsible, because the symptoms may get better on their own regardless. For more severe illness, knowing which virus is responsible can guide prognosis and treatment.
If you are feeling ill, contact your doctor, and he or she can guide you on whether testing is needed.
Difficulty breathing is a feared symptom of all three viruses. If you are having difficulty breathing, contact your doctor, call 911 or go to the emergency room.
As discussed later in this article, vaccines are available for flu and COVID, but RSV vaccines are still in development and not yet available.
Flu, RSV and COVID are not treated with antibiotics, because they are caused by viruses, not bacteria.
Wash your hands.
One of the best ways to avoid getting sick is to wash your hands. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds (sing Happy Birthday twice) before and after preparing food, eating, touching surfaces that are likely to be contaminated with germs like door handles or railings in public places (like an airport), and before handling children or pets. You can use soap and water, alcohol-based hand sanitizer or antibacterial gel if running water isn't available.
Get the flu shot.
The flu shot is essential to protect yourself from getting the flu. It's available in many pharmacies and doctor's offices, including most grocery stores and drugstores.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone 6 months or older get a flu vaccine every year unless they have a contraindication to vaccination. Anyone who is at high risk of complications from the flu should get one as soon as possible:
- Those with chronic illnesses (such as diabetes, asthma, obesity)
- People 65 years or older
- Children younger than 2 years old
- Pregnant women
Know which prescription medicines may help you most against flu
Tamiflu and Relenza are both prescription antiviral drugs. They have been shown to be effective against the flu in clinical trials, but they're not a cure-all.
Tamiflu (oseltamivir) is used to treat acute influenza that has begun or appears to be developing. It's also used to prevent influenza in people at risk for complications from the disease, such as children younger than two years old. The medicine blocks the action of the influenza virus. Tamiflu works best if started within 48 hours of influenza symptom onset.
Relenza (zanamivir) is an alternative to Tamiflu that also works by blocking the action of the influenza virus.
Note that both medications are only approved for the treatment or prevention of influenza (flu), and not other respiratory viruses. These medications are not a substitute for your annual flu shot.
Duration Health can include medication to treat or prevent the flu in our custom-built Med Kits. Visit durationhealth.com/kit for more information and to speak with one of our physicians about building your custom Med Kit, and whether it might make sense for you to have Tamiflu on hand for emergency treatment.
Drink lots of fluids, avoid caffeine and alcohol.
Fluids are important. Fluids help your body stay hydrated and healthy, and they also can help prevent dehydration during flu season.
Drink water, juice or other non-caffeinated drinks. Avoid sugary drinks.
Avoid alcohol as it dehydrates your body more quickly than other beverages.
Stay at home if you feel sick.
You should also stay home if you're sick. The flu virus is spread through coughing and sneezing, so it's important to keep yourself isolated from others until your symptoms subside. Don't go to work or school, and don't go shopping or eat out at restaurants.
Cover your coughs and sneezes.
Use a tissue or your sleeve to cover your coughs and sneezes.
Don’t cough or sneeze on your hands, then touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
Don’t share food, drinks or utensils with people who are sick.
If you’re worried about getting sick, there are plenty of things you can do to keep yourself healthy during this flu season. With a little bit of preparation and the right information, you’ll be able to stay healthy this flu season and all year long.
The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor, go to the emergency department, or call 911 immediately.