Employee & Community Health

FAQs: Coping with the flu

2/5/2018 by Dr. Henry Schultz

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This year's influenza (flu) virus, H3N2, is hitting people particularly hard. If you get sick, these FAQs can help you weather your illness — or avoid getting and/or spreading the flu. 

Q: What is influenza?

A: Commonly known as the flu, influenza is NOT a cold or stomach flu. It's a specific infection caused by influenza viruses that circulate throughout the world every year. They also mutate or change from year to year, which makes developing a vaccine to combat influenza challenging. Influenza viruses spread so fast and so frequently that our immunity to them doesn't last long. 

Q: What are the symptoms?

A: Flu symptoms include:

  • Fever, often 102° F. or greater
  • Severe muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Cough
  • Severe fatigue, often described as feeling like you've been hit by a truck/can't get out of bed

Q: What do I do if I think I have the flu?

A: Call your primary care team's appointment line. They can answer questions and connect you with over-the-phone treatment when appropriate. They also can determine if you should be seen in the clinic. Because influenza is so contagious, it is often best that you not come to a medical facility where you might infect others.

Q: What can I do to treat my symptoms?

A: One of the most-effective approaches to feeling better is to take acetaminophen (Tylenol) on a regular schedule. You may alternate doses of acetaminophen with ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve). Other home treatments include: 

  • Drink plenty of fluids and get lots of sleep.
  • Comfort yourself with remedies such as tea with honey or chicken soup.
  • Try not to over-cough. Coughing too much or too hard may cause rib pain and even fractures. It's okay to suppress your cough. 
  • Note that over-the-counter cough syrup typically is not very effective. 

Q: When can I go back to work or school?

A: The flu usually runs its course in about a week. You're very sick for the first 24 to 48 hours, but then gradually you should start feeling better. You can go back to work or school once your fever is gone, and you're no longer coughing. If you work with at-risk individuals, such as the elderly, those with chronic illnesses or who are pregnant, you may want to stay home a few days longer. 

Q: How can I avoid getting or spreading the flu?

A: To avoid getting the flu:

  • Get a flu shot.
  • Stay away from those who are ill, especially if they're coughing or sneezing. 
  • Wash and sanitize your hands religiously.
  • Avoid touching your face with unsanitized hands. 

To avoid spreading the flu:

  • Stay away from those who are healthy, as well as those who are at-risk. 
  • Practice respiratory etiquette. Flu is spread mostly by coughing and sneezing. The virus is carried by large droplets that can travel about six feet. So cover your coughs and sneezes!

Q: Is it still worth it to get a flu shot?

A: Yes, even though you've probably heard that this year's vaccine isn't as effective as in previous years. How does that happen? Vaccines are created six to 12 months in advance. By the time all the millions of vaccine doses are prepared, the virus may have mutated to a strain not covered by the vaccine. 

The good news is that protection against the H3 strain, which tends to make people sicker, is included in this year's vaccine. Also, even if the vaccine doesn't cover all the strains circulating, it does provide some protection and reduce the severity of your illness. 

The most-important reason to get vaccinated is to protect your elderly relatives, friends, children and those with chronic illnesses who may end up in the hospital if they get sick. Remember, if one member of the family gets the flu, it is likely everyone will. 

Dr. Henry Schultz is a primary care physician in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Primary Care Internal Medicine (PCIM) in Rochester. In addition to primary care, he also is dedicated to educating future physicians and has received Mayo Clinic Department of Medicine's Lifetime Achievement Award for Medical Education.