Influenza has hit early and hit hard. Your work colleagues are out sick, media reports tout the ERs are at capacity and you’re scrambling to minimize the chance that your children get sick with this year’s flu.
First some facts: stomach flu is not the same as Influenza. Both are circulating now, but they are completely different illnesses. Stomach flu is also a viral illness but isn’t prevented by the flu vaccine and the symptoms are almost completely limited to the GI tract. Pretty violent vomiting and diarrhea are typical with the Norovirus strains that are circulating right now (although other viruses can also cause stomach flu illnesses) and some people can vomit up to every 30 minutes for hours with this nasty bug. Stomach flus can cause dehydration, so look for dry eyes or mouth or lack of urination for 8 hours or more as indicators that it’s time to seek care. Extreme listlessness is also worrisome.
Influenza, on the other hand, is a respiratory virus. It causes sore throat, runny nose, cough, fever, body aches, and it too may cause stomach upset with some mild diarrhea or occasional vomiting. Unlike a typical cold though, the symptoms of Influenza are intense and often you feel like you’ve been run over by a train. Fevers with Influenza tend to be higher than with other viral illnesses and can reach as high as 104 or more in children and adults. Fever can last up to 4-5 days and the coughing can last 10 days or more.
Flu vaccine has been available since August and parents have asked me this week if it’s too late to get it, given that Influenza is widespread. I still recommend you get the vaccine if you can. Even though it can take a couple of weeks to take effect, you don’t know when you will get exposed and typically we see this heavy illness period last for several weeks before waning.
In addition, there are 3 strains in the vaccine and only one primarily causing illness right now, so there are still two more that could hit. So even if you’ve had a flu-like illness, getting the vaccine makes sense. The vaccine isn’t perfect and in older adults, immune response doesn’t appear as strong as to the vaccine as it is in younger folks, but it’s the best defense we have other than washing our hands and avoiding sick people — if you can. Given the widespread nature of the illness this season, exposure to Influenza seems almost inevitable.