Flu season came early this year, and it’s not only worse than expected, but it’s also the worst flu season in years. The mayor of Boston declared a public health emergency in the city due to the high number of cases—over 700—there. And dozens of cases across the country have been fatal. In fact, the outbreak is more intense in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world right now. So, it’s serious.
There are actually several different kinds of sicknesses affecting the country—seasonal flu, norovirus, whooping cough, and strep throat among them, not even counting Bieber fever (although there is a cure for that). What is the flu? Has it hit your neighborhood? How worried should you be? How can you avoid getting it? What should you do if you do get sick? Read on to find out.
What Is the Flu?
Let’s get this straight first… Flu is the respiratory sickness caused by the influenza virus that threatens the functions of your nose, throat, and lungs. Flu is a virus that spreads by injecting its genetic information into the nuclei of your cells. In other words, it hijacks the good cells and controls their function to turn them against you. And you get it simply by breathing it in. Like this:
After the virus moves into the bloodstream, it causes those symptoms we all know and love:
- Body aches and chills
- Runny nose and/or congestion
- Some of the harsher symptoms include dehydration and sinus/ear infections
Hopefully you don’t have norovirus, a stomach flu that is quite painful to go through (it usually involves vomiting, back pain, and diarrhea).
How is the Flu Different From a Bad Cold or Strep?
There are four big telltale signs that can help you distinguish among a cold, a flu, norovirus and whooping cough:
1. Fever equals flu. You might get a slight temperature from a cold, but if you’re really heating up, it’s probably the flu.
2. Colds are mild and long lasting. Colds usually start with a sore throat, then progress to symptoms like a runny nose and congestion, followed by a cough that won’t go away. And they don’t usually cause fevers. Sometimes it can take up to 3 weeks to get rid of a cold entirely. The flu, though, tends to come on quickly all at once and be more intense, but it doesn’t linger. If you’re running a fever and your body aches and you can’t get out of bed and don’t feel like eating anything, it’s flu time.
3. Pink swollen tonsils are the strep red flag. Strep throat also comes on quickly and starts with a sore throat and headache. So how do you know what’s what? Tonsils that look red or inflamed (sometimes with white yellow patches of pus on them—ugh), with an absolutely killer sore throat, separates strep—a bacteria that usually takes antibiotics to cure—from flu (against which antibiotics are useless). Show a doctor if you think it’s strep. No Instagram photos please.
4. Diarrhea can be a sign of norovirus or whooping cough. Whooping cough, or pertussis, a strong cough that ends with a “whoop” noise, takes effect 10-12 days after a common cold sets in. It’s caused by bacteria and can be fatal for infants. You might also experience stomach issues from what’s called the stomach flu but is a totally different thing from the seasonal flu. This year norovirus is the stomach flu variety that’s sweeping the country.
What’s Up with This Year’s Epidemic?
National Institutes of Allergy and Infections Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci announced on CNN, “We are into what would classically be described as a flu epidemic.”
Take a look:
Want to know how many people are infected in your area and state? Check Google’s nifty flu trend maps and the CDC’s weekly data map.
How Can I Avoid the Flu?
The main thing you can do is take care of yourself, which is obviously easier said than done with habits and busy schedules. Your body really does do much better at fighting off the flu if you are:
- Getting enough sleep. (Most people need 7-8 hrs.)
- Eating a healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables and non-processed foods.
- Drinking the amount of water you need.
- Exercising. When you work out you enhance your body’s immunity.
- Washing your hands and keeping clean. The norovirus spreads through contact. Hand sanitizer helps kill any germs you might have after touching an infected area.
- Taking vitamins, avoiding sick people and using hand sanitizer are just a few other ways to keep from getting sick.
You should also cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze.
To take prevention to another level, get vaccinated—especially if you are particularly at risk. Problem is, suppliers are reporting shortages of the main flu vaccine. Still, you might be able to get a shot, or maybe get the version known as FluMist, which is inhaled instead of injected.
What Should I Do if I Get Sick?
One thing that can help is the prescription medication Tamiflu—but there’s a shortage of that too. Another medicine is Relenza. Both need to be taken soon after the disease rears its ugly head, so be ready to call the doctor.
Kids and the elderly are more at risk than many others, and it’s especially important for them to see a doctor if they think they have the flu. And definitely go to the doctor if you experience any acute symptoms like the inability to keep fluids down, chest pain, fever and constant vomiting. Healthy adults might want to consult a doctor but will probably mostly just have to wait it out.
No matter what, if you have the flu, stay hydrated, get a lot of rest, and stay home—both to get better and to avoid infecting others. And in case you’re wondering, yeah, there’s an app for that.