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The ABCs of cold and flu season

Karen Miller and Howard Manly | 1/23/2013, 7:59 a.m.

It is not always necessary to seek medical care when you get the flu. Most often, you can treat yourself at home. Drink lots of fluids, get plenty of rest and use over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (active ingredient of Advil) and acetaminophen (active ingredient of Tylenol), to reduce body aches. With rest, fluids and anti-fever medications, most people are fine.

But some symptoms warrant medical treatment. “Not being able to keep food down is one of them,” said Zane. Very high fevers, shortness of breath or chest pain are other symptoms. Headaches, especially in the presence of neck pains, should also be evaluated.

In some cases, the doctor may recommend an antiviral medication. These drugs treat influenza A and B and can shorten the illness by one or two days and reduce the severity of symptoms. Antivirals are frequently recommended for high-risk people. There is one hitch — you have to start the regimen within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.

The best approach is to prevent the seasonal flu’s onslaught. First, get an annual flu shot. They are available now at doctors’ offices, clinics and many local pharmacies. The best time to get a shot is when the vaccine is first available — usually in September. But if you miss September, you’re not too late. You can still get the shot even beyond January.

A reason to get vaccinated sooner rather than later is to give the body enough time to make antibodies against the seasonal flu. This process is not immediate; it usually takes a couple of weeks. If you wait too long, it is possible to become infected before the body has had enough time to arm itself.

Doctors recommend that everyone be vaccinated. However, some groups are particularly targeted — young children, pregnant women, those 65 and older, those with chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, and people who live with or care for sick people. Health professionals are inoculated every year for the safety of their patients.

An additional approach is to get the virus before it gets you. That’s when personal hygiene comes into play. Fortunately, heat and various chemicals, such as alcohol, iodine, hydrogen peroxide and chlorine, can destroy influenza viruses. Detergents and soaps work wonders.

Washing your hands is one of the most effective ways to avoid the flu infection. And a quick dip under water does not do the trick. You need to lather up with soap and wash for at least 20 seconds. Rinse well, dry off your hands thoroughly and turn off the faucet with a paper towel.

Washing your hands once or twice a day does not suffice. Wash often — before and after handling food, after using the toilet, after sneezing or coughing — following any activity that fosters the growth of germs.

Being away from a sink is no longer an excuse for not washing your hands. Hand gels that contain at least 60 percent alcohol are now readily available and can be used in the absence of soap and water.