By Saul Hymes, M.D.
Make sure you and your loved ones are ready for the flu season by getting vaccinated. While the best time to get vaccinated is October or November, you can get vaccinated before the flu season and even in December or later. We don’t yet know what type of season we will encounter, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Cold or flu: How can you tell?
Influenza, or the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses and tends to be more severe than a cold. A cold is caused by a different virus and has milder symptoms. People with the flu will usually have fever, muscle aches and more fatigue.
The flu can also cause very severe complications including pneumonia and can lead to hospitalization and death. More mild cases may be indistinguishable from a cold and the duration can be the same (about 5-7 days). There may be times when you’re uncertain if you have the flu or a cold, so it’s good to know that there’s a test to diagnose the influenza virus, which most doctors’ offices and ERs are able to perform.
Treating the flu vs. a cold
Both are treated with rest and lots of fluids, while the pain and fever associated with either can be treated with medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Influenza may also be treated with a direct antiviral medication, Tamiflu. However, depending on risk factors and the person’s age, not all people with influenza need Tamiflu. This should be discussed with your physician.
Who is at risk?
People who are over the age of 65, adults and children with conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease need to get a flu shot. Pregnant women and people who live in facilities like nursing homes are also encouraged to get a flu shot. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone six months of age and older should get their yearly flu vaccine. There are documented benefits from this, including reductions in illnesses, related doctors’ visits and missed work or school. Even an imperfect vaccination can contribute to fewer hospitalizations and deaths from influenza.
Dispelling the myths
Some people think that the flu shot can cause the flu. Not true. While some people get a little soreness or redness where they get the shot, it goes away in a day or two. And the nasal mist flu vaccine might cause nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat and cough. But the risk of a severe allergic reaction is very rare — it’s less than one in four million.
Others say the flu shot doesn’t work, which is also not true. Most of the time, the flu shot will prevent the flu. In scientific studies, the effectiveness of the flu shot has ranged from 70 to 90 percent when there’s a good match between circulating viruses and those in the vaccine.
Habits that can help
Help keep the flu at bay. Avoid those who are ill. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. If you don’t have a tissue, then cough or sneeze into your elbow or shoulder (not into your hands). Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. Stay home from work if you’re sick. Keep your children out of school and after-school activities if they’re sick.
At Stony Brook University Hospital, we also encourage visitors who may be experiencing symptoms not to visit their loved ones in the hospital until they are healthy.
If you would like to get a flu shot, we can refer you to a provider in your area. Call Stony Brook Medicine’s HealthConnect at 631-444-4000 or visit your physician or local pharmacy.
Dr. Saul Hymes is an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics and specialist in pediatric infectious disease at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital.