Influenza, more commonly known as “the flu”, is a virus that attacks the respiratory system and results in sudden onset of high fevers, bodyaches, cough, and fatigue. The flu results in billions of dollars a year in lost productivity from missed work days and causes thousands of deaths annually, particularly among the elderly and patients with weakened immune systems.
The flu is a virus and viruses need to hijack the cells of its host in order to make copies of itself. The flu carries a protein called hemagglutinin (H) which allows it to bind to the surface of host cells. The flu carries another protein called neuraminidase (N) that allows new copies of the flu to be released from the host cell. The flu virus is constantly evolving and changing these H’s and N’s and so each strain is referred to be the variant of these proteins. The 2017/2018 flu season includes H3N2 strain which has been associated with more severe outbreaks of the flu and higher mortality rates. Children and the elderly can become quite ill this year and so treatment for all flu sufferers is recommended.
Treatment for the flu used to just be supportive: tylenol or motrin for fever and pain control, rest, and fluids. Since the flu is caused by a virus, not a bacteria, antibiotics are not helpful. However, in recent years new medications designed to fight viruses have been developed that are effective at fighting the flu. These medications are most effective if started within the first 48 hours from the onset of symptoms, so it is important to get checked to see if you have the flu right away if you are to get the treatment in time. Code 3 ER and Urgent Care has rapid flu testing which involves taking a specimen of nasal mucous without the use of needles. The results are back in just a few minutes and we can start treatment right away.
The flu is a miserable illness and it is much better to simply not catch it in the first place. Unfortunately, influenza is airborne and highly contagious so the best way to prevent catching it is to get vaccinated. The influenza virus has two important proteins on its surface (we’ll just abbreviate them and call them ‘H’ and ‘N’) and each of these proteins have many different variants. The variants of these proteins can be combined in unique ways to produce a different strain of the flu each year. Scientist study the strains of the flu as they appear and try to predict how to best tailor the vaccine to prevent the most likely strains of flu from making us sick. Predicting the most likely strain of the flu is a bit like predicting the weather: usually it is a pretty educated guess but sometimes it isn’t quite right. The good news is that the vaccine usually provides some protection even when it it isn’t a perfect match but usually it is highly effective! Also, in case you were wondering, you can’t catch the flu from the influenza vaccination!
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends everyone 6 months old or older should get the flu shot! Read more about the flu vaccination on the CDC website.