How do I know if I have the flu?
Darren West, M.D., is an emergency medicine doctor at Banner Ironwood and Banner Goldfield Medical Centers.
Question: My father is 68. He's been sick for several weeks now and just hasn't been able to shake it. How do we know if it's the flu?
Answer: “The flu,” or influenza, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by flu viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. The flu usually comes on suddenly and is different than the common cold.
Flu symptoms include fever or feeling feverish with chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue (tiredness). Keep in mind a fever is not always present. Most cases of the flu are diagnosed by having the right symptoms at the right time of the year.
Most people with influenza will get better in a few days to less than two weeks. However, some people can develop complications as the result of the flu and these may need to be treated differently. Pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus and ear infections are examples of complications from the flu. In addition, the flu can worsen chronic health problems such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or congestive heart failure.
People who are at risk of complications include those who are 65 years and older, people with chronic medical conditions (asthma, CHF, COPD, diabetes, heart disease), pregnant women, and young children.
The older population is more susceptible to the flu for two reasons. First, our immune defenses naturally become weaker as we get older. Second, as we age, we are more likely to develop other chronic medical conditions that could make us susceptible to complications of the flu.
Treatment by your primary care physician or urgent care is perfectly appropriate for people with mild to moderate illness and is best for most people. Everyone who has symptoms of the flu does not need to go to the emergency department. However, if your family member is experiencing severe symptoms such as shortness of breath, altered mental status, high heart rate, inability to eat or drink, or you feel he may have a complication of the flu, he should go to the ER right away.
So, your father should be seen by a health care provider, as he may have developed a complication.
Recovery is similar to other viral illnesses. Your father should plan to rest, drink plenty of fluids, watch his nutrition, and of course, take his medication as prescribed. Note, there are medications to specifically treat the flu, but these are really most effective when started within the first days of symptoms.
You can help your father or any elderly person who has the flu by assisting in their daily activities so they can rest and recover. This also helps the person avoid going to public places and spreading the flu. You should check on him often to make sure he is getting better, not worse, and encourage him to seek medical care if necessary. Remember, though, that as much as you want to help, you need to stay away if you are sick.
It is believed that flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk. Remember to wash your hands often and try to avoid being in close quarters with those who are ill. Note, however, that people can be contagious a day before they develop any symptoms.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates 90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths and more than 60 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations in the United States each year occur in people 65 years and older. The CDC recommends everyone six months of age and older get their flu vaccine. This is especially important for those we mentioned who are at risk for complications. I cannot emphasize enough the most important thing to do is get your flu shot so you are less likely to get the flu in the first place.