Fighting the Flu: Prevention to Treatment

Board Certified Pediatric Emergency Physician Dr. Ronnie Waldrop and Erin Rovelli, RN serve patients at the Children’s Emergency Room at Inova Loudoun Hospital – Loudoun County’s only emergency facility solely dedicated to caring for children and adolescents.

We all dread the flu – the terrible body aches, sore throat, fever and chills are often unbearable.  Board Certified Pediatric Emergency Physician Dr. Ronnie Waldrop and Erin Rovelli, RN, share all you need to know about a flu diagnosis, proper treatment, and prevention.

What is the Flu?

Influenza (Flu) is a common and serious infection in the United Sates – affecting millions of Americans annually.  Some of the largest and most fatal epidemics to date have been a result of flu viruses, including the 2009 H1N1 (swine) flu epidemic.

Flu most often occurs in the winter and is extremely contagious.  Therefore, the frequencies of flu cases increase in highly populated or crowded places like schools and daycare. It is caused by a group of viruses which attack the throat, nose and lungs and typically occurs approximately 1 to 4 days after exposure.

What are the symptoms of flu?

The most common symptoms of the flu include high fever, chills, body aches, fatigue, cough and headache.  The flu can result in a number of illnesses ranging from simple upper respiratory infections, sore throats and pneumonia, to severe infections such as sepsis, myocarditis (heart infection) or encephalitis (brain infection). The risk of severe flu infection with complications is significantly higher in certain populations including the very young and the elderly, persons living in crowded environments, pregnant women, persons who are obese, or in persons with weakened immune systems or with chronic illnesses such as asthma.

How is flu diagnosed?

Rapid antigen tests are often performed on nasal secretions to detect the flu. However, a positive flu test does not always mean flu is the only active infection in the body. And, a negative flu test does not always mean flu is not present – especially at the height of the flu season. In some cases, a flu test may not be necessary and can be diagnosed simply through an examination and clinical history intake.

How can I prevent the flu?

While the flu is not entirely preventable, the frequency of flu may be significantly decreased by following routine preventive practices such as vaccination and isolation.

An annual flu vaccination before the start of the flu season is one of the best means of prevention. Antibodies to fight influenza develop approximately two weeks after vaccination, so early vaccination is important. Because of mutations, flu viruses are different every year. This means that vaccinations and/or infection from a previous year does not fully protect for the future. The flu vaccine does not cause the flu and is safe; although, it is not 100% effective because of the many strains of the flu.

Flu is highly contagious and spreads through droplets from a sneeze or cough and when you come into contact with an object contaminated with the flu virus – think door knobs, tables, drinking glasses, etc. Therefore, hand-washing and isolation is required to limit the spread of the virus.

How do I treat the flu?

Once diagnosed with a flu infection, antiviral medications like Tamiflu may be started within the first day or two. Tamilflu can slightly shorten the illness and helps to decrease the risk for complications that are caused from influenza. Unfortunately, Tamiflu causes nausea and/or vomiting in a significant number of patients and may make symptoms worse. Taking Tamiflu with food can help prevent these side effects. Call your physician if your child is not tolerating the Tamiflu medication. Antibiotics for bacterial infections do not treat the flu.

A flu infection may last up to 10 days with frequent high fevers and other symptoms as listed above. Be sure to manage fevers with ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) and drink plenty of fluids.

When can I return to work or send my child back to school?

Patients may be susceptible to secondary bacterial infections for weeks following a flu infection as a result of prolonged congestion and inflammation associated with the flu. Therefore, recurrence of a fever after a flu infection requires a re-examination to rule out serious bacterial infections.

Patients should wait at least 24 hours after the last fever, cough and/or congestion has subsided before returning to school or work.  Or, 5 – 10 days after the first symptoms; whichever is longest.

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