Early flu season has many worried
With all I'm reading about a flu epidemic this winter, how I can tell the difference between influenza and other viruses?
Unfortunately, diagnosis of influenza can be tricky because symptoms of many viruses that tend to circulate this time of year can be very similar to the flu, according to Avra Goldman, a clinical assistant professor at MED and medical director of the Ambulatory Care Center Family Medicine Practice, which is attached to Boston Medical Center.
“The key things to look for are fever, which can be quite high, and cough,” she says. “Those symptoms combined, beginning within 48 hours of the time the patient begins to feel sick, give it the highest likelihood that the illness is the flu.”
The common cold and other winter viruses tend to involve more nasal congestion. However, flu victims can also get upper respiratory symptoms, including runny nose and sore throat, along with chest congestion. “Also more common with the flu,” Goldman says, “are whole-body symptoms -- muscle aches and fatigue.”
Most healthy people can handle the flu without much problem, and the illness will run its course in two to seven days. “But people in higher-risk groups should actively look for treatment, because they are more likely to develop complications such as pneumonia,” she says. These patients, who should actually be immunized at the start of the flu season in October, include people with weakened immune systems, those over the age of 65, and sufferers of chronic illnesses, diabetes, emphysema, and heart disease. People with asthma, along with babies between six months and two years, should also receive flu shots.
If you do contract the flu, drink plenty of fluids and get bed rest, says Goldman, adding that prescription medicines such as zanamivir, which is inhaled, and oseltamivir, which is taken orally, shorten the course of the illlness if they are taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.
This year's flu season came earlier than usual across the country, and the much-publicized death of 18-year-old Worcester State College student Jeffrey Donahue on December 7 has made many people worried. Physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he died, suspect a “super infection,” a combination of influenza and another pathogen, may have killed him.
“The western part of Massachusetts got hit by the flu, but we haven't really been hit hard in Boston yet,” Goldman says. “We haven't seen a big grouping of cases. It could lie ahead of us. It's hard to tell.”
“Health Matters” is written in cooperation with staff members of Boston Medical Center. For more information on flu or other health matters, call 617-638-6767.