Last year’s flu season set a record as the longest-lasting season in a decade, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. This year’s season, which began in October, has the potential to be just as long … and even more severe.
“The flu season is very unpredictable with time, severity and length of season,” says Laurie Isenberg, a certified physician assistant with the Ascension St. John Clinic in Bixby. “The unpredictability is due to the ever-changing virus strains from year to year and even within the same flu season. Every year, the influenza vaccine is updated to cover the three or four most prominent strains.”
The impact of influenza throughout the Southern Hemisphere can sometimes foretell what the United States will experience. One such warning was Australia’s recent flu season – it began two months early and reports indicated a high prevalence of a certain flu strain.
Common symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, congestion, body aches, nausea and vomiting.
“The virus is self-limiting, meaning it will resolve on its own without the use of antibiotics,” Isenberg says. “However, secondary infections, including bacterial infections, can develop subsequently to the influenza virus and may require additional treatment. Common complications could include ear and/or sinus infections, bronchitis and pneumonia.”
Dr. Kathryn Reilly, with OU Physicians Family Medicine in Oklahoma City, says most people with the flu get better within one to two weeks; however, pneumonia is the most common and serious complication. It can be caused by the flu and happen early in the course of the disease or from bacteria after the flu has run its course.
“The really bad complications from the flu can include inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) or inflammation of the muscles (myositis),” she says. “The worst complication would be multi-organ failure.”
When you’re sick at home, you might not know whether you have the flu or a severe cold.
“The symptoms can be similar, but usually you’re sick faster with the flu,” Reilly says. “Usually when people get the flu, they wake up and have all the symptoms – cough, fever, body aches. Whereas with a bad cold, it usually comes on a bit slower – your head is congested, you have a headache and don’t feel well.”
Isenberg says people with higher risks of complications include children, senior citizens, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems or other chronic health conditions.
In most cases, you can recover from the flu at home, but you should seek immediate medical treatment if you experience symptoms causing additional concerns, including shortness of breath, chest or abdominal pain, difficulty in waking up, disorientation, dehydration, severe muscle pain and/or severe coughing.
According to the CDC, the single best way to protect yourself is to get the annual flu vaccine, recommended for everyone 6 months and older. While you can still get the flu, the vaccination has been shown to reduce the severity of the illness and reduce the risk of flu-associated hospitalization.