Vice President of Clinical Strategies
Hi there, it’s me, Flu. I know you haven’t seen much of me in the past two years, but I wanted to let you know… I’m back!
Why have we had a few slow years? It is most likely due to a combination of everyone keeping their distance, wearing masks, better hand-washing, and general awareness of germ transmission. But don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. As news channels report, there is a surge of flu, and it is starting early. So, let’s discuss a few facts and myths about our old nemesis, influenza.
The Mom’s Myth: “If you don’t wear your coat” or “if you go out with wet hair…”
We have all heard it, and some have said it (sorry, kids). The truth is if you are out in the snow with wet hair, no hat, and no shoes, and there isn’t a virus present, you will not catch a cold or the flu. Why is it so hard to convince people of this? I suppose it’s because each of us has gotten a cold following a less-than-brilliant wardrobe decision. Trust me, this had more to do with touching our face and nose with our germy hands than with our outerwear, or lack thereof.
The Grandmother’s Myth: “Feed a cold, starve a fever.”
After mixing up this adage more times than I care to count, I have decided (and the experts agree) to feed everything. Seriously, a body in crisis needs nourishment to heal. Fluids, fluids, and more fluids are vital to fighting all viruses, and food, when you’re hungry, is the way to go. Save the diet for when you feel better. And since you asked, yes, chicken soup does help, according to researchers.
The Boss’s Myth: “You can only get one cold and one flu per season.” (Translation: Don’t call in sick again!)
Kids average six to eight viruses per season; adults will deal with two to four. Some will be flu strains, some common cold, and some the recently touted RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus). Depending on the flu virus strains and your exposure to them, you can fall victim to several. That’s why the flu vaccine covers many virus strains each season.
Many viruses live 24 hours on hard surfaces such as doorknobs, counters, and telephones. Touch them, then touch your eyes or nose, and you are done for. Believe it or not, the rhinovirus, the virus most often connected to the common cold, bonds to the nasal passages in just 15 minutes after entering the body. Then the fun begins. The flu will take one to four days after exposure for the hammer to fall. Both are contagious before symptoms start and while symptoms are present. Proper hygiene, including frequent hand-washing and good housekeeping, of course, and staying away from sick people can have a significant effect on the amount of exposure to the viruses.
The Untouchable’s Myth: “Hugging, kissing…and, well, you know, spreads the cold virus.”
The nose is the culprit here, so unless you’re Eskimo kissing, you’re in good shape. If your nose is running, dripping, sneezing, or otherwise misbehaving, keep it away from others. Wash your hands every time you cough into them, sneeze into them, or touch or blow your nose. If you can, cough into your arm or turn your head and cough into your shoulder. Not great for the dry-cleaning bill, but still better than into your hand or in your neighbor’s face. And don’t be afraid to cuddle your child, old or young. It’s true: sometimes, love is all you need. But make sure you use good hygiene.
The Worrier’s Myth: “When I get the flu shot, I always get the flu.”
The chances of the flu shot giving you the flu are zero. The chance that this is just an excuse to stay away from needles, hmmm, I’d say, is pretty good. No one likes to get a shot, but it’s still better than getting the flu, getting a complication from the flu, like pneumonia, spreading the flu to your family, or, heaven forbid, dying from the flu. Each year more than 200,000 people are hospitalized with the flu. Several thousand die from complications. While most people experience a sore arm from the shot, some have more significant reactions. This is a result of your body developing its resistance to the virus. Some may have a mild fever, headache, or fatigue. But this is not the flu, and it will be gone in a day or so. If you get the flu in the days/week following your shot, you were exposed before the vaccine was given or had time to protect you. So, get protected early in the season.
The Druggist’s Myth: “Over-the-counter treatments cure the virus.”
Sorry, that is not true. Taking OTC medications according to the directions may help alleviate symptoms during the duration of the cold or flu. Those who maintain that fever, runny nose, and coughing are the body fighting the virus itself, and taking medication to stop this will prolong the illness are partly right. The body is trying to remove the virus, but with or without treatment, the cold will last seven to ten days, and the flu up to two weeks. If you have the flu, there are very useful prescription medications that can help. They must be started within the first couple of days of symptoms. If you can’t see the doctor in the early stages, over-the-counter drugs can offer comfort and some relief. But perhaps the most important thing to know here is that antibiotics do not help. In fact, they can complicate the issue by killing off the beneficial bugs. If your cold or flu starts to get better, then worsens, or is still hanging on after ten to 14 days, it’s time to see the doctor.
If you want to suffer without medication, clear your nasal passages frequently and cough, use tissues, cover your mouth, and wash your hands as often as possible.
How can I tell the difference between colds and the flu?
In general, the onset of a cold is gradual. On day one, an itchy nose, runny nose, sneezing, or scratchy throat will start. Other symptoms will add on until it peaks around day 4, gradually improving until day 7. The flu will hit like a runaway train. You feel fine, then headache, fever, chills, coughing, sneezing, congestion… and the symptoms are relentless. It usually takes well into the second week before you start to feel like your healthy self.
Can I get the flu and COVID-19 vaccines at the same time?
You can get the viruses together, and yes, the CDC says it’s safe to get both vaccines at once. If you do get two shots on the same day, get each vaccine in a different arm. This may reduce pain and swelling at the injection site.
I’ve never gotten the flu; why shouldn’t I take my chances?
Skipping the flu shot is a much riskier proposition with COVID still prevalent in so many communities. If you get the flu and need care, you may find hospitals unable to accept you because the COVID patients are utilizing all the available resources. You could also get the flu and COVID. If you are not vaccinated against either, the risk of your immune system being overwhelmed by two viruses simultaneously or back-to-back infections could result in more severe illness.
In conclusion, I offer what I like to call the co-worker’s truth. “When you are sick, stay home!”
If you are the only one who knows the secret codes to the lunchroom door, fine, wash your hands, put on your mask and gloves, and go to work. Otherwise, if you have the flu or a cold, stay home. Sharing any virus is not something that friends and colleagues do. Colds and the flu are easily spread, especially in the workplace. Face it, the only person who might be willing to be around you when you are sick is your mom, and even that is doubtful. Plus, hang out with her, and you’re opening yourself up to one of those myth-laden lectures (see numbers one and two). Listen to your body. Rest when you need to, drink fluids, eat when you are hungry, and call your doctor ASAP if you think it is the flu. Stay well, my friends.
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