It hit you like a truck. You were fine in the morning, but by noon you had developed a runny nose, high fever, body aches, chills and a dry cough. All you want to do is wrap up in a blanket and lie down. Really, they could hire you for the next cold and flu commercial. And, as you’re trying to find your cough drops and chicken noodle soup, you’re hit with the question- “Do I have the flu?”

Influenza is an acute respiratory illness that causes sore throat, fever, runny nose, cough, body aches and chills. It is caused by the Influenza A and B viruses. It is often confused with the viral “stomach flu,” although its symptoms are very different from the “stomach flu’s” nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The influenza virus typically circulates in the winter season, and the Center for Disease Control will track its activity across the country. Nasal swabs are useful to test for Influenza A and B near the beginning and end of flu season, but not always necessary for diagnosis. Influenza is often more devastating for the very young, the very old, pregnant women, those with chronic medical conditions and those with COPD or asthma. As influenza is a viral illness, antibiotics are ineffective in treating the disease. In some circumstances, antivirals may be prescribed to lessen symptoms and decrease the length of illness. Influenza may sometimes weaken the immune system to the point that secondary bacterial infections such as pneumonia, ear infections and sinus infections begin. When a pneumonia, ear infection or sinus infection is diagnosed, antibiotics are needed.

Vaccines are given yearly in September and October, and include that year’s predicted viral strains. Production of the vaccine begins around 6 months before the influenza season starts, at which time experts must predict what strains of influenza A and B will be most prevalent. The influenza virus is able to disguise itself from our immune system by mutating each season. Large mutations in the virus are the cause of large epidemics.

When do you need to see your doctor? Antivirals are of some benefit if started within 48 hours of the illness. So, if you come down with sudden fever, chills, runny nose and cough, it may be beneficial to come in for testing. Anyone with a prolonged or high fever needs to be seen, as do individuals with trouble breathing. Infants, elderly, those with chronic conditions, asthma and COPD should also be seen sooner rather than later. JW