Perhaps you’ve heard of a lump of coal in the stocking on Christmas morning? Well, this unwelcome Christmas gift is worse.
It’s not a visit from Scrooge. It’s not the Grinch. It’s influenza. Colorado hospitals and medical providers are starting to report the arrival of the seasonal flu virus. While fortunately not widespread, this is probably just the beginning.
Influenza is actually a group of viral strains, with “A” and “B” varieties that circulate during the winter months. Flu can sometimes start as early as October and can last until April some years, although December through February tends to be the peak activity.
Many people confuse a cold with the flu, but the two tend to be quite different, with flu oftentimes much more severe and, in some instances, life-threatening. Elderly adults, young children and those with chronic illness are most susceptible to complications, but even healthy young adults can deeply regret this unpleasant illness.
Influenza typically begins with rather sudden onset of headache, muscle aches, tiredness and fever often accompanied by runny nose, sore throat and cough. Appetite may be reduced and dizziness may occur.
By far the most common complication of flu is pneumonia, of either the viral or bacterial variety. This can even lead to death. Last year, an especially challenging flu season, saw more than 80,000 flu-related deaths in the United States. It is too early to predict what this year’s flu season will look like in terms of severity.
Treatment is available for flu, although specific flu treatments such as antiviral medications probably have modest effect. Nevertheless, for those with risk factors for flu complications, such as those mentioned, early diagnosis and treatment is generally recommended. For many, relief from the varied flu symptoms often results from the combination of plenty of rest, lots of fluids and medications for symptom relief.
Generally, children should never receive aspirin-containing products, but especially during a flu-like illness because of the association with Reye’s syndrome, in which neurological problems may occur.
Perhaps the most important thing to consider during flu season is prevention. For those already ill, staying home from work or school not only promotes necessary rest but also reduces risk of transmission to classmates or co-workers. Frequent hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes and avoiding contact with the face can also reduce spread.
As I mentioned in an earlier article, the best means for preventing flu is vaccination with the safe and generally effective inactivated flu vaccine. While this vaccine generally takes a week or two to produce immunity, it is still not too late to go out and get one. They are usually available in medical provider’s offices and retail pharmacies.
Hope you have a safe, healthy and happy holiday.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.