Yes, it's flu season, the 2012-2013 season started five weeks early, and as of Friday, the Centers for Disease Control are referring to the U.S. outbreak as an "epidemic." But just because you've been sick recently or are feeling unwell now, you haven't necessarily been laid low by influenza.
Flu's a disease that pains you all over, but it mostly lives in your chest. Other problems that are common during this season occur mostly from the neck up (the common cold) or inhabit your stomach (gastroenteritis, mistakenly referred to as "stomach flu" but often caused by either rotavirus--common in children--or norovirus). Whooping cough, which has flu-like symptoms but a more severe cough and often a longer duration, is also breaking out this winter. Flu shots do not work against any of those.
A cold is technically a head illness, not systemic or respiratory like the flu. It involves a sore throat, sneezing, and/or a stuffy or runny nose. Colds rarely include fever, though they may precede a wet cough (one that produces mucus) or a sinus infection. Stomach flu isn't flu at all--it's an inflamed stomach and small intestine that results in diarrhea, belly pain and cramping, and/or vomiting.
You don't "come down" with the flu slowly: it hits you as quickly as three hours to a day after you're exposed. It usually makes you feel pretty bad, pretty fast. Sudden fatigue, body aches, headache, a dry cough, chills, and fever up to 103 F are the main symptoms.
You should not go to the emergency room if you are simply ill. The emergency room belongs to people who are very sick. Most of the time, a bad case of flu is not considered an emergency. If you go to the ER and you don't really have the flu, you might catch it there from someone who does. Contact your regular health care provider or go to a local clinic if you are concerned about your illness.
Within the first two days of contracting flu, you can consult a health care provider and receive early treatment with antivirals such as Tamiflu or Relenza. These can often reduce severity of illness, keep you out of the hospital, or prevent even more serious illness.
If you have flu and develop worse problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, sudden dizziness, confusion, severe or persistent vomiting, or you appear to get better but then get sick again with fever and worse cough, call your health care provider promptly or go to the hospital ER.
Severe flu can lead to complications, potentially even death. Some people have a higher risk of serious flu-related complications than others:
- young children,
- pregnant women, and
- people with long-term medical conditions.
If you're in one of these high-risk groups and develop flu symptoms, or if you're responsible for someone who is, you should contact your health care provider. Be sure to remind him or her about your high-risk status.
During the last week in December, the U.S. Outpatient Influenza-like Illness Surveillance Network reported that flu-like illness (temperature of 100°F or greater, and cough, and/or sore throat) accounted for 5.6% of patient visits to a doctor throughout the U.S., above the national baseline of 2.2%.
However, the Centers for Disease Control attributed some of these cases to fewer routine health care visits (which might have detected a flu) during the winter holiday season. The statistic fell to 4.3% last week.
On Friday, the CDC declared the disease epidemic throughout the nation: during the last week surveyed, pneumonia and the flu had caused 7.3% of all deaths reported.
Based in Chicago, Sandy Dechert recently covered health care issues in the Presidential race and mental and physical health over the holidays. She also reported on Hillary Clinton's recent illness, the fungal meningitis outbreak, and the procedure that saved the life of Good Morning America cohost Robin Roberts.
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