By Alicia Fabbre, Special to the Tribune
January 23, 2013
Flu season is upon us, and it's been a rough one. If you haven't had the flu this winter, chances are you know someone who has. So, what should we do to keep ourselves from getting it? Some folks are packing their own "flu survival kits," while others are loyal to flu shots. We talked to Dr. Michael Lin, an infectious disease physician with a research interest in influenza at Rush University Medical Center, for some tips on how to make it through the flu season.
Q: What is the best way to prevent the flu?
A: The best way to prevent the flu is to get a vaccination. The flu vaccine trains your body to recognize and fight off influenza. It contains the three strains that are predominant in the flu season, so your body is more prepared to fight off the flu. It's not 100 percent effective, but even if you do catch the flu after receiving the vaccine, we believe the flu symptoms would be decreased.
Q: You hear about people packing flu survival kits. What should you pack in one? What works? What doesn't?
A: I don't tell my patients to pack a flu survival kit, but I do recommend that my patients keep medications that will be used every year. Medications that can be used for influenza are ones that reduce fever and pain, so medications like acetaminophen, which is found in Tylenol. Cough medicines can be helpful as well if patients who have the flu have those symptoms. It's worth mentioning that medications that contain aspirin should not be given to children under 18 because it causes a serious problem called Reye's syndrome.
In general, most people who get the flu get better on their own. Most of the things in the flu kit are really just for symptomatic relief. These are really just very generic medicine cabinet items. I do not recommend that people carry antiviral medications like Tamiflu.
Q: What else should I be doing to keep myself from getting sick?
A: In general, if somebody you know looks like they have the flu, ask them to cover their mouth when they cough to prevent you from catching the flu. Otherwise, just staying in general good health and eating a healthy diet are all things that can help the immune system fight off infection.
Q: You hear about lots of home remedies to prevent flu or to fight it. What is the most bizarre home remedy you've heard about?
A: I don't know. I haven't heard enough. I can tell you people ask about vitamin C. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to show that vitamin C prevents the flu or makes the flu duration shorter. Similarly with zinc products, there's no evidence to show it prevents the flu. They probably don't hurt, but there's no evidence that they help.
Q: What about those white surgical masks? Do those really do anything?
A: In general, if you have flu symptoms, it's best to stay at home to avoid transmitting it to others. If you go out, simply covering your cough is enough. I don't believe everyone needs to have a surgical mask on at home. However, if you are sick and go to the doctor, you will be asked to put a surgical mask on to keep other patients from getting sick.
Q: What are symptoms of the flu?
A: Symptoms include fever, cough or sore throat, headache or muscle ache, and fatigue. Symptoms can vary from person to person. Some people have mild symptoms; some people have very severe symptoms. Flu symptoms usually improve over two to five days, but sometimes the flu symptoms can last one week or more.
Q: How do you tell the difference between a cold and the flu?
A: With flu, usually you get a fever, whereas with colds the fever is uncommon. Fatigue and general aches and pains are usually present with flu, but mild with a cold. The fever is probably one way to try to distinguish between the two. The higher the fever, the more likely you have the flu.
Q: If I have the flu, what should I do?
A: If you have the flu, stay at home, rest and drink plenty of fluids so that you don't become dehydrated.
More important, one question people may have is when do you know you need to see the doctor? Most people with the flu recover within one to two weeks without treatment, but there are serious complications that can happen with the flu, so I recommend that patients call their doctor or nurse immediately if they feel short of breath or have trouble breathing, if they have pain or pressure in the chest, if they have signs of being dehydrated or if they feel confused. It's important to note that antibiotics do not work for the flu; it requires antiviral medication.
Q: When does flu season generally run?
A: Flu season generally runs from about October until April. The actually timing of the peak varies from season to season. It's unpredictable, but when it actually hits there's usually an intense season of about four to six weeks.
Q: So are we at the end of flu season?
A: We believe we've probably peaked as far as Chicago goes.
Q: Have you ever had the flu?
A: I have not had the flu that I know of. I get vaccinated every year.
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