Flu season begins in late October and may continue through January. Influenza viruses are extremely contagious and spread rapidly across college campuses, causing missed classes and general misery. Here’s what you need to know to stay healthy.
- What is influenza? Influenza is a family of viruses that change every year, making natural immunity rare. The CDC projects which strains are likely in a given year and vaccines are designed around them.
- What are the symptoms of the flu? Think of your worst hangover coupled with a head cold: Stuffy nose, sore throat, fever and chills, fatigue, nausea, and body aches.
- What are the complications of the flu? Although usually a self-limited illness, influenza kills up to 50,000 people a year (including some young, healthy college students) and is especially dangerous for pregnant women and those with underlying conditions like asthma and diabetes. Smokers are also more likely to develop bronchitis or pneumonia.
- What do I do if I think I have the flu? The first and most important thing is to stay home. The second is to stay hydrated. Gatorade, chicken soup, herbal tea and water are all good. Take ibuprofen for the fever and muscle aches and sleep as much as possible. Keep your used tissues, glasses, towel, etc. separate from others. Plan on five to seven days of sickness.
- When should I see a doctor? If you have an underlying condition, you should see your doctor immediately. There is antiviral medication available that has benefits in high-risk groups which needs to be started early in the disease. For the average patient, the medication only shortens the duration of illness by a day, and is very expensive. You should also see your doctor if you cannot stay hydrated (keep a light yellow urine color), if your fever persists past three to four days, if you develop chest pain, shortness of breath or confusion, or if you’re not getting better after five to seven days.
- How can I avoid the flu? Get a flu vaccine. College campuses report a low rate of vaccination among students, which may explain the high rate of illness. Vaccines are $15 at Student Health, and are worth the money. Although the shot may make you feel achy with a sore arm, it will not give you the flu. It will protect you from the most common strains and may lessen the severity of others. Wash your hands. Hand sanitizer works well, too. Cover your mouth by sneezing or coughing into your elbow. Avoid sick people if possible.
Get further info at www.cdc.gov/flu/index.htm.