9 Facts to Know About the Flu This Year As Recommended by a Doctor

The flu (influenza) season this year has caused serious concern across the nation. Several cases of a misdiagnosis of the flu have resulted in death and with so many different viruses that can cause cold-like symptoms, it's important to be more informed. A cold is an infection that affects your upper respiratory system, which causes a sore throat, stuffy/runny nose, and fatigue, for a finite amount of time. The unpleasant symptoms we associate with the cold is our immune system fighting back and trying to get rid of the infection. We spoke to Dr. Mia Finkelston, a board-certified family physician who treats patients virtually via telehealth app, LiveHealth Online, who answered key questions about the flu for us. If you're feeling the wrath of the common cold, read more about it below.

MORE: Mother-of-Two Dies One Day After Being Diagnosed with the Flu

1. How serious is the flu season this year? Has it reached its peak?


This year’s flu season is among one of the most severe that we’ve had in recent years. The Influenza virus has spread across the entire U.S. and has now become an epidemic. We’ve heard about a number of deaths, including 30 children, as a result of the flu this season. This year’s strain is influenza A, which is an H3 virus. With these viruses, we tend to see more serious cases of the flu as well as a decrease in the effectiveness of the flu vaccine. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention is predicting that while the flu seems to be peaking now, it will stay around for a few more months, so people should be aware of this. While the flu vaccine is not perfect, it still offers some protection, especially for children and the elderly.

2. There have been some devastating stories of people who have lost their life because of a misdiagnosis of the flu. What are symptoms someone should look out for to prevent that from happening?


Some of the symptoms that we should be looking out for include fever, chills, sore throat, runny nose, cough, headache and fatigue, and muscle or body aches. Seek medical attention immediately if you notice that your flu symptoms begin to improve and then suddenly worsen again (for example, your fever returns, you have difficulty breathing, your cough worsens, you are dizzy, you experience chest or stomach pains and you are vomiting). Taking medication within two days of the onset of these symptoms can shorten and reduce the severity of the flu. It’s important to note that you are highly contagious and can infect others from five days up to a week after developing symptoms.

3. What’s the difference between the stomach flu and regular flu?


Although some people may confuse the flu with the stomach flu, they are very different. To start off, they are caused by different viruses and they present very different systems.

The seasonal flu is caused by the influenza virus and mainly leads to upper respiratory problems. Common symptoms of the (seasonal) flu are cough, body aches, and pains, fever, congestion, fatigue and exhaustion. Influenza will come on suddenly and can last up to a week or even ten days and will make it difficult to do anything without feeling miserable.

The stomach flu can be caused by a number of different viruses (most often the norovirus, rotovirus or a food-borne bacteria) and leads to gastrointestinal problems. Common symptoms of the stomach flu are vomiting, stomach pain or cramps, diarrhea and occasional fever. While the stomach flu is by no means a walk in the park, it is not as serious as influenza. Typically, vomiting does not last more than 24 hours. Diarrhea may continue for a few days after that. In cases of severe dehydration, you may need to see a medical professional.

4. What’s the best treatment for the flu?


For those exhibiting severe symptoms of the flu, seeing a medical professional is very important, especially this season, given the severity of the virus. Since it is highly contagious, it’s best to stay home and avoid contact with other people except to see your doctor. Antiviral prescription medicines are generally the best treatment. These drugs can shorten the duration and severity of your illness and can also prevent serious flu complication, like pneumonia. Antiviral drugs for the flu work best when started within 2 days of getting sick. Still, starting them later can still help, especially if the patient has a high-risk health condition or is very sick. For those who contract the flu but are otherwise healthy, they may not need to be treated with antiviral drugs.

5. What are some natural approaches people can take to cure? If any?


Unfortunately, there is no scientific data in support of the use of natural treatments for the flu. There are some homeopathic remedies that have been produced and are tried by many, but their efficacy is not consistent.  The natural approaches consist of things I support: consistently healthy lifestyle (eating healthy, exercising, etc.), rest, and supplementing with certain vitamins during the winter months, based on where you live.

6. Is there anything you can add to your diet to prevent the flu?


I doubt there is a food source that can prevent the flu. However, eating highly nutrient dense food sources is always a good plan. Cruciferous vegetables, garlic, turmeric and protein, which keep your body strong, are good sources to fight off any inflammatory reaction. To boost your immune system load up on B vitamins (specifically B6, which can be found in turkey, beans, and spinach), and B12 (which is found in fish, milk, and meat). As always, it is better to eat your veggies but if a trip to the store is not possible, you may use an oral vitamin supplement. 

7. If your significant other has the flu, how likely are you to catch it?


If you are sharing a bed, hug, and kisses, it is very likely.  I suggest that once someone is presenting the classic symptoms, even before diagnosing, they quarantine themselves to the guest room until they are feeling better. People with the flu can be contagious for up to 5 days and definitely when you have a high fever for first few days.

8. Could your bed sheets put you at risk for the flu?


There is evidence that the flu virus can stay alive on hard surfaces for up to a day and on soft surfaces (tissues) for 15 mins. Plan to wash your sheets and pillowcases when you are sick. Use hot water and don’t share your bed until you are feeling better.  Bottom line, don’t take chances, it is very contagious.

9. What are some measures everyone should take to prevent getting the flu?


The best way to take a proactive approach to preventing the flu is to get vaccinated. In addition to getting the flu shot, it’s important to practice healthy habits to protect yourself and others from flu and help stop the spread of germs. Washing hands and keeping your hands off of your face (mainly your eyes, mouth or nose) is one of the best ways to prevent getting any viral illness. This is a given, but avoid close contact with people who are sick. It’s good to get in the habit of cleaning and disinfecting surfaces in your home, at work, or at school that you frequently come in contact with. Other ways to prevent the flu are getting plenty of sleep, trying to manage your stress, drinking plenty of water or other fluids, exercising or at least being physically active a few days a week, and maintaining a healthy diet.