Seasonal Flu Q&A: Top Questions Answered

The seasonal flu has hit the United States hard this season. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu activity is high throughout most of the U.S. The flu is so widespread in certain parts of the country, it prompted some states to declare a flu emergency. For instance, according to the New York State Department of Health, the governor declared a public health emergency due to high flu rates. Even during an average flu season, it’s important to become educated on the seasonal flu in order to protect yourself and your family. Below some common flu questions are answered.

Q: What constitutes a flu emergency?

A: A flu emergency can be on a local, national or even a global level. According to Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior associate at the Center for Biosecurity and adjunct instructor with the Division of Infectious Diseases, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, “An emergency can exist on a local level when the amount of individuals suffering from influenza exceeds the ability of hospitals to render care, vaccines, or antivirals.”

Q: How can you tell the difference between the flu and a cold?

A: It is important to understand the flu and a cold are not the same thing. Symptoms of a cold are usually not as severe as the flu. “Colds don't typically cause fevers, muscle aches, or prolonged symptoms, like the flu can,” said Dr. Adalja. For more information, see Frequently Asked Questions About the Flu.

Q: How do I care for someone who has the flu without getting sick?

A: If a family member gets the flu, you want to be able to help, without getting sick yourself. According to Marc I. Leavey, M.D., a Baltimore primary care internist and flu expert, “The flu virus can sit on your hands after touching something an ill family member contaminated. It can gain entry when you eat, rub your nose, or eyes.” Although you may not want to quarantine your family member, it is important to try to stay apart as much as possible and try to decrease your exposure to the virus. “There are a few things you can do to reduce exposure, such as disinfecting surfaces, which may be contaminated, using disposable dishes and utensils, and frequent hand washing,” said Leavey.

Q: If someone in my house has the flu, will we all get infected?

A: Although the flu can spread through households, it is not inevitable. “If appropriate precautions are taken, including influenza vaccinations for all family members, it reduces your risk,” said Dr. Leavey. Proper and frequent hand washing and limiting contact with the ill family member should also minimize your risk of getting sick.

Q: What types of complications can develop from the flu?

A: Although anyone can develop complications from the flu, those most at risk are the very young, the elderly and people whose immune system is compromised from disease or chemotherapy. “The biggest complication from the flu is secondary bacterial pneumonia,” says Dr. Joel Maslow, chief of division of infectious disease at Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey. “Bacterial pneumonia can lead to respiratory distress and failure and even be fatal in some people,” said Maslow.

Q: At what point should you see your doctor if you have the flu?

A: Most people with the flu will start to feel a little better within a week. According to Dr. Maslow, if you have symptoms, such as shortness of breath, severe muscle aches, pain in a localized area of the chest when you breathe and wheezing, you should see your doctor. “If you start to feel better for a day or two and symptoms return or you develop new symptoms, you should also be evaluated,” said Dr Maslow.

Q: If I go to an emergency room with the flu, what can I expect?

A: Although polices may vary, if you visit your local emergency room with flu symptoms, you will likely be given a mask to wear while you are being evaluated. Wearing a surgical mask may help reduce the spread of the illness. Some facilities may swab your nose to determine if you are positive for the flu and other hospitals may not. If symptoms are present 48 hours or less, you may be prescribed antiviral medications.

Flu experts agree one of the best ways to reduce your chances of getting the flu is by getting a flu shot or other form of flu vaccine. If you do get sick, get plenty of rest, stay well hydrated and do your best to avoid spreading the illness. Although you may feel miserable temporarily, the good news is, most people start to feel better in about a week.

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