What is The Flu?

The flu virus is not a single entity, but a wide variety of different viruses all in the family called influenza. There are types A and B, and type A is divided into subtypes based on two surface proteins on the virus (labeled “H” and “N”). These subtypes are categorized from H1 N1 all the way to H18 N11, which, by the way, is found only in bats. Aside from the seasonal flu transmitted human-to-human, there are dog flu, cat flu, bird flu, bat flu, not to mention horse flu, whale flu, and swine flu.

Because there are so many varieties of flu, we must get a flu shot every year. Influenza viruses are changing constantly and do this in two ways. They make small continuous changes over time that eventually lead to significant differences. The second type is an abrupt mutation leading to a dramatically new subtype of flu. The latter can produce a virus that is so different that we have no baseline immune protection, which can lead to a much wider and more severe outbreak.

When is it The Flu?

Flu symptoms can be similar to a cold: fever, chills, cough, sore throat, headache, body/muscle aches, nasal congestion and drainage, fatigue, etc. However, the onset of the flu happens more abruptly, and symptoms are much more severe. The influenza virus is always around but starts to pick up in November and decreases by the end of March. The usual time from exposure to illness is two days but may range from 1–4. A person is most contagious in the first 3–4 days, but it can span from one day before up to one week after symptoms start. Aerosolized droplets that get coughed or sneezed into the air spread flu. During flu season, avoid people with flu-like-illness, and if you have flu-like-illness, avoid others. Good hygiene includes covering your cough and sneeze and washing your hands frequently. (Wearing a surgical mask with the words “harbinger of disease” written across the front in Sharpie is ideal.)

What do we do for The Flu?

Like the common cold, we don’t have a cure for the flu. Antiviral medicines only shorten flu symptoms by a day or so, and only if started within 48 hours of illness. Their main benefit is helping people at high risk of developing severe complications from the flu. This would include those under age two or older than 65 and people with chronic comorbid conditions: lung, heart, kidney, liver, blood, or brain disease; diabetes; HIV; pregnant; morbidly obese; nursing home residents; etc.

Last year’s 2017-18 flu season was classified as a high severity across all age groups. It had the highest peak, child mortality, and hospitalization rates for all ages since the 2009 pandemic.

Flu season is coming, but we have a wall of protection with the flu shot. Studies have proven that the flu shot does not cause the flu. It takes approximately two weeks after the shot for your body to generate its immune response and it lasts about six months. This is why the month of October is the perfect time to get your annual immunization. Even if in some cases it doesn’t prevent the flu, it has been shown to lessen the effects and decrease serious consequences.

Get on the CDC website, become a flu expert, and spread the most important information known regarding the influenza virus: everybody over six months old needs a flu shot.

Dr. David Pepperman is Family Practice Physician with St. Francis Medical Partners. To schedule a flu shot or appointment call 901.888.2646 or visit sfmp.com