There's a flu outbreak in the U.S. this winter season, the worst in the past 10 years. It has come unusually early and is widespread across the country. 30,000 people have tested positive for the flu so far, and there have already been 20 pediatric deaths. Of all those being swabbed for the flu, one third are testing positive.
I am a medical professional treating patients with the flu every day. Here is my advice for how you can survive this flu season:
1) Do I have the cold or the flu? The cold usually involves just a runny or stuffy nose, a cough, and maybe an earache, but you'll still be able to go about your usual routine. The flu is defined as a fever of over 100.4F/38C and a cough or sore throat. It will usually come on suddenly. With the flu, you can also experience body or muscle aches, weakness, a headache, low energy, and congestion. You'll feel like you've been hit by a truck and are in no mood to be out and about.
2) How can I avoid getting the flu? Wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching any part of your face. Stay at least 3 feet away from someone who is sneezing or coughing, as the flu virus particles can be on any surface a contaminated person touched or suspended in the air after a cough or sneeze. Also, a person with the flu is contagious a day before they feel symptomatic, up until about 5-10 days into it. To avoid getting the flu, you can get the flu vaccine, which will lessen your chance of catching the flu. This year, the vaccine is 62% effective according to the Center for Disease Control.
3) Should I get the flu vaccine? Yes. An annual flu vaccine will decrease your chances of getting the flu and spreading it to others if you do catch the flu. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that everyone aged 6 months or older get vaccinated. While it is not failsafe, the flu vaccine offers protection to you and those around you. Note that it is highly recommended to get the flu vaccine if you are 65-years-old or older, pregnant, immunocompromised (cancer, HIV/AIDS), at risk (asthma, chronic lung disease, diabetes), or work in a healthcare setting. More information here.
4) Where can I get the flu vaccine? You can get it from your primary care provider, an urgent care clinic, at your university, at work, or in some pharmacies. Check here to find the closest location near you. You should get the vaccine every year, as new flu viruses appear every year. A new vaccine is developed each year depending on studies of which viruses will be around in the upcoming flu season. Also, your body's immunity to the flu naturally declines over time, which means a "booster" flu vaccine is helpful.
5) Is there a shortage of the flu vaccine? Not really. Some providers have run out before getting new shipments because of high demand. However, producers have plenty of vaccines in stock, so you might just have to search a bit harder. Look online for availability in your area.
6) What are the side effects of the flu vaccine? The most common side effects are soreness, swelling, and redness at the site of the injection. You could also get a slight fever (below 100F), but this is much less common. All can be treated with over-the-counter medications. The most common side effects of the nasal spray flu vaccine are a runny nose, cough, and congestion.
7) Can I drink after getting the flu shot? While it is sensible to avoid alcohol for several hours after getting the vaccine, there is no contraindication against drinking, just drink moderately.
8) Can the flu shot cause the flu? This is a myth. The flu shot is an inactive virus and cannot give you the flu. Those who say they got the flu soon after getting the vaccine just happened to be vaccinated during flu season and were contaminated in the two-week period it takes for the flu vaccine to take effect.
9) How can I treat my symptoms if I get the flu? Most people who get the flu recover in less than two weeks and do not need medical care or antiviral drugs (like Tamiflu). They can just use over-the-counter medications to treat their symptoms (decongestants, anti-fever meds, pain meds). You should get plenty of rest and stay very hydrated. And don't forget to wash your hands and cover your mouth when you cough!
10) What are the benefits of taking Tamiflu and in what dose should I take it? The brand name drug Tamiflu (oseltamivir is the generic name) is an antiviral drug in pill and liquid form that is prescribed by a health care provider to lessen your symptoms and shorten the duration of sickness by 1-2 days if taken within 48 hours of your first symptoms. It can also prevent flu complications, like pneumonia, and is recommended for people with a high-risk medical condition. Your health care provider will prescribe you the pill twice a day for five days. It can also be used to prevent the flu by taking it once a day for 10 days. The brand name drug Relenza (zanamivir is the generic name), an inhaled powder, is another brand name you might be prescribed to treat the flu.
11) Do I need a prescription for Tamiflu? Yes. It is not sold over-the-counter.
12) Is there a shortage of Tamiflu? Only for the pediatric oral liquid version, because so many children are being prescribed it and a few pharmacies are running out before getting new shipments. However, the producers of Tamiflu have plenty in stock so if your pharmacy has run out, they should be able to refer you to one that has the medication in stock.