So you got the influenza(flu) vaccine and you still got the flu! You are not alone. Millions of your fellow Americans are dealing with variations of fever, chills, headaches, runny nose, cough, and muscle aches. Right now we are seeing a significant rise in a version of the influenza virus called H3N2. The vaccine this year has been less effective against this strain than we would have liked it to be. Estimates say it is around 30% effective for preventing this H3N2 strain.
Does this mean it is not worth getting the flu vaccine every year?
No. It is worth getting the vaccine. Even though the vaccine is not highly effective against the current strain, 30% is better than nothing. Plus, we are still early in the flu season which will likely run for a few more months. Other strains of the virus are more likely to be prevented by the vaccine than this current strain. So this current vaccine may still keep you from getting sick later. The vaccine may also make your current symptoms less severe if you get the flu anyway compared to the severity if you did not receive the vaccine. If you have not had a flu shot this year, it is still recommended that you get one.
What to do if you get the flu.
Getting the flu stinks. It drains your energy, it hurts, and makes you irritable and miserable. In more severe cases, it can lead to major lung issues and even death. This year has been particularly hard with more people needing to be hospitalized and more people dying compared to prior years.
For the average person with a normal ability to handle infections, the risk of serious problems is relatively low. Fighting the flu generally involves treating the various symptoms. Below are some recommendations in dealing with the flu:
- Rest – Give your body time to recover. Usually the worst of it is over within a few days although your may not feel perfectly normal for several weeks.
- Stay hydrated – High fever, faster breathing, and abundant mucous production all make you lose water from your body. Plus your decreased appetite usually means you are not taking in as much as you should. Making a conscious effort to stay hydrated will help in your recovery and hopefully also minimize that dehydration headache too.
- Vaporize – Running a clean humidifier/vaporizer, running a hot shower or bath, and yes, even drinking from that large bowl of chicken soup can introduce vapor into your sinuses that can help loosen up some of that mucous.
- Relieve some pain and fever – Acetaminophen(Tylenol), Ibuprofen(Advil, Motrin) and Naproxen(Aleve) can all be used to decrease the headaches and muscle aches associated with the flu. Just remember not to use aspirin in children because it can cause some major problems for them.
- Sinus Rinse and Repeat – Nasal rinses which are available over the counter can be used to wash the mucous out of the sinuses allowing for some pressure relief and the ability to breath easier. The good part is, unlike many medications, this is something that can be repeated often to help keep yourself comfortable.
- Less thick mucous – Using over the counter medications that contain guaifenesin may help take that thick stuff in your sinuses, throat, and chest and make it thinner which would be easier to get out of you.
- Decongest if you must – Nasal decongestants may temporarily work wonders but the relief is usually very short-lived. Also, these sprays should only be used for less than 3 days as they can create a worsening of your symptoms and some people get a dependence on them. Similarly, medications like pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine(these can be found in things like Sudafed) may work too but have side effects such as high blood pressure, fast heart rate , and dry mouth. They also are not recommended in pregnancy.
- Stop the sore throat – Analgesic throat lozenges, sprays, films, and liquids can help with painful swallowing which will also help you stay hydrated and fed. Use these just before eating and drinking to make the experience less painful. Although they may distort the test of things(which is probably already happening because you cannot smell your food). Some prescriptions anesthetic gargles may be used if the throat pain is severe.
- Tame the tickle in the throat – Medications as mentioned above for sore throat can also help decrease the tickle so that you are not coughing so much. Sometimes just sucking on a candy or some herbal hard candy can help decrease that sensation that leads to the stuttering cough. A prescription medication called Benzonatate can also help with those symptoms too.
- Control the cough – Over the counter cough medications are usually a combination of items. Sometimes they help a bit and sometimes they do not. There are some prescription cough medications that may be better at helping you get some sleep instead of hacking the night away. However, many of these prescribed cough medications contain a narcotic which has its own drawbacks. For those with wheezing and tight lungs, using a prescription inhaler like used for asthma may help open up the airways enough to make breathing a bit easier.
Isn’t there a medication to specifically treat the flu?
Yes. There are a few medications available by prescription only that are anti-viral medications and can help both decrease the severity of the symptoms and how long you are sick for. Most research suggests that this effect is relatively mild for the average person suffering from influenza and they are most effective if started within 2 days from the beginning of flu symptoms. Additionally, there are concerns over resistance of the viruses to this medication which has led to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other medical organizations weighing the risks and benefits of using this medication.
The general agreement is that these medications should only be used for those that are at high risk for developing complications from influenza. According to the CDC, the following groups of people are considered higher risk:
- Children younger than 5
- Adults 65 and older
- Pregnant women
- Nursing home or other long-term care facility residents
- American Indians and Native Alaskans
- People with the following medical conditions:
- Neurological conditions
- Chronic lung disease like emphysema
- Blood disorders like Sickle Cell Disease
- Kidney problems
- Liver problems
- Weakened immune systems
- Metabolic disorders
- Long-term aspirin use in people younger than 19
- Extreme obesity
So if you are in one of these higher-risk categories and develop flu-like symptoms, it is recommended you get a medical evaluation within 2 days from the beginning of the illness and preferably within the first 24 hours.
Avoid making things worse.
If you get it, avoid spreading it. The CDC recommends that you stay home with the flu until your fever is gone for at least 24 hours without any fever-reducing medications. Limit your contact with others and cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze. Use tissues instead of your hands and get rid of those tissues. Your hands should be washed with soap and water after touching your face or any possibly contaminated surface. That surface should also be cleaned with a disinfectant.
So this flu season, use this guide to educate yourself on some of the many options to help your body help itself. Most people do well but some develop significant problems. If you are in a high risk category, get yourself checked within 2 days. If over the counter medications are doing nothing or there is a concern there might be some complication developing, get seen either in-person or through a telemedicine video visit to determine if prescription medications are needed or more intensive treatment is necessary.
Of course if you are having any issues that you feel may be an emergency, particularly passing out, difficulty breathing, chest pain or pressure, fever >100.4F lasting more than 3 days, get somewhat better and then immediately ill again, inability to keep down any fluids, or any other concerning symptoms…please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.
Stay Healthy and Care On!