Health Matters: Why should you care about influenza?

LeeAnne Storey

December 27, 2019

By St. Peter's Health Physician Assistant LeeAnne Storey, PA-C in the Independent Record on December 24, 2019. 

In the midst of holiday joy, influenza (the flu) may not occupy your thoughts. But taking a few moments now to educate yourself about influenza might spare you some misery and lost work. It’s no exaggeration to say your efforts could even save your life or the lives of others in our community.

Influenza is at peak activity during the winter months. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of early December, so far this season there have been at least 2.6 million flu illnesses, 23,000 hospitalizations and 1,300 deaths from flu. I have a suspicion that if these were statistics about spontaneous human combustion, people would pay close attention!

Influenza is a virus affecting the respiratory system. A typical case causes sudden onset of fever, body and/or headaches. Respiratory symptoms may include cough, congestion, and sore throat. Although some people, especially children, may experience nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, these symptoms alone are not likely to represent influenza. Much of this confusion comes from the unfortunate misnomer “stomach flu,” which is a common term for gastroenteritis.

Influenza spreads by respiratory drops -- the sneeze/cough spray of other people (YUCK). The virus can also survive for a time on hands and nonliving objects, such as door handles.

Some people are at greater risk of becoming ill with influenza, or of developing serious complications. These include but are not limited to infants; those over the age of 65; people with asthma; COPD; or diabetes; those with compromised immune systems; and pregnant women.

There is no cure for influenza, although antiviral treatment with a medication like Tamiflu (oseltamivir) can modestly shorten the overall duration of illness and decrease the chance of serious complications. Know that your health-care provider will likely not prescribe antibiotics for influenza alone, because antibiotics have no effect on viral illness. If you are diagnosed with influenza, supportive care measures, such as drinking plenty of fluids and resting, are important. Over-the-counter medications for symptom management may also be helpful, but if you have medical problems, such as high blood pressure or heart dysrhythmias, it is a good idea to discuss with your doctor or pharmacist before trying.

Seek medical attention early in illness if you are interested in treatment; antivirals have little to no effect if initiated after 48 hours of illness. If you have concerns about your health, you should seek care regardless of how long you have had symptoms. For mild illness, it is appropriate to seek care at an outpatient clinic, like your primary care clinic or urgent care. For difficulty breathing, chest pain, or feeling as if you are going to faint, skip the clinic and go to the emergency room.

As a family practice physician assistant who also participates in a dedicated flu clinic annually, I cannot strongly enough state the importance of PREVENTION.

Influenza prevention:

1. Get your flu shot. This is our single best tool in preventing deaths from influenza.

2. Wash your hands often. Good old soap and water with friction are best, but hand sanitizer is a great option if soap and water are not available.

3. Cover your cough/sneeze. It’s not just polite, it’s ethical. Wearing a mask if you must be in public while ill is advisable.

4. Clean high use surfaces often -- keyboards, phones, door handles, and toys.

5. Take good care of yourself. Get enough sleep, physical activity, and eat healthy food. This maximizes your body’s natural defenses.

Unfortunately, although the influenza vaccine is the most effective tool we have to prevent illness and death, it remains underutilized. Misconceptions abound. You may know someone who had the shot and got influenza anyway. This happens. The virus changes constantly, and it’s impossible for epidemiologists to concoct a vaccine that will anticipate all flu strains. They make a highly educated guess each season to predict the most common and virulent strains. Some years the flu vaccine is more effective than other years. Regardless of the year’s efficacy, the vaccine still saves actual human lives.

We also know that the influenza vaccine can reduce severity of illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2012-2018, the flu vaccination among adults reduced the risk of being admitted to an ICU for flu by a whopping 82 percent. Another common objection is that some people report contracting the flu from the vaccine. This is simply not possible. The vaccine contains non-living antigen (tiny pieces of the virus) to make it recognizable to your immune system. Such claims of contracting symptoms are not baseless; likely they represent your own immune response or the coincidence of contracting another illness. Nearly everyone aged 6 months and older should get vaccinated against influenza.

Fine… I’ll admit that influenza is not as attention grabbing as spontaneous human combustion, but the life you save could be your own. Or grandma’s.

LeeAnne Storey, PA-C, is a physician assistant at St. Peter’s Health Medical Group. She holds a master's degree in physician assistant studies from Rocky Mountain College. Storey is part of a team that will deliver care at St. Peter’s Health's Seasonal Cough, Cold and Flu Clinic set to open January 2020.