Get the Facts About the Flu This Year
Nov 30, 2022 | Flu | Share:
You probably already know that the flu is already here and spreading in Alabama.
Our Birmingham offices are seeing an incredibly high number of patients with flu and influenza-like illnesses, far earlier than we usually do. This, combined with the fact that there’s been minimal flu activity over the past couple of years, means that it’s probably time to brush up on your flu knowledge.
The Flu in 2022
Flu season in Alabama usually begins in late November and can last until early May. But in 2022, influenza and other respiratory illnesses such as RSV have been spreading earlier than usual. Flu cases in Alabama began to rise in early October. Now, in late November, cases continue to be very high. You can check current flu activity in the United States using the CDC weekly surveillance report.
So why are all of these viruses spreading earlier this year? While we can’t be completely sure, it’s likely that influenza, RSV, and other influenza-like illnesses (ILI) are spreading earlier and faster due to reduced exposure over the past few years.
COVID-19 didn’t eliminate flu and RSV, but measures to reduce the spread of COVID also worked to reduce the spread of other respiratory viruses. But these viruses didn’t just go away. As these measures have been removed and life has gone back to normal, respiratory viruses have begun to spread again.
Although reduced exposure to these viruses over the past couple of years has led to fewer illnesses, it’s also led to reduced immunity. Regular exposure to these viruses keeps your adaptive immune system ready to fight them off. This break in exposure means your immune system isn’t as primed to fight these viruses when you are exposed. As a result, more people are getting sick with more viruses this year.
But you can't ignore the flu. Anyone, including otherwise healthy individuals and children, can experience complications from the flu.
The Flu Strains
Although they are the same basic virus, several distinct strains of the influenza virus circulate each year. In fact, four dominant strains of flu are usually responsible for the seasonal flu infections we see each year. Two of these strains are Flu A and two are Flu B. (Flu C and Flu D also circulate, but Flu C causes very mild illness, and Flu D typically only circulates among cattle.)
Flu A viruses (H1N1 and H3N2) are responsible for flu pandemics and tend to spread more easily. Flu B variants (Yamagata and Victoria) change a little slower than Flu A and tend to be less dominant. According to current influenza surveillance, almost all flu circulating right now is Flu A. This dominance may change as the flu season progresses.
While each strain is distinct from the others, the strains are also different from the flu viruses that circulated in previous years. Viruses mutate; that’s just how living viruses behave, adapting so they can better survive. Because the flu strains are different from those that circulated in previous years, you can get sick with the flu each year – even if it’s the same type. You can also get sick with both Flu A and Flu B in a particular flu season, but it’s unlikely you’ll be infected with the same type twice in one year.
Getting your flu shot is the best way to protect yourself against the flu each year. The 2022 influenza vaccine is designed to fight all four dominant strains of the flu.
2022 Flu Symptoms
If you’ve ever had the flu before, you know that the symptoms can feel pretty awful. Symptoms usually begin 1 to 4 days after you’ve been exposed to the virus and can last for about a week.
Typical symptoms of the flu are:
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Upset stomach
Symptoms of the flu can vary depending on the strain. Unlike a cold which begins with a scratchy throat for a couple of days before developing into other symptoms, flu symptoms usually develop within a couple of hours. Influenza is contagious for 24 hours before symptom onset, and it spreads very easily through respiratory droplets.
Testing and Treatment for Flu
If you have symptoms of influenza during flu season, chances are pretty good that you’ve been infected with the virus. But the only way to know for sure is to get a flu test. Testing is done with a simple nasal swab, and rapid results are ready in just about 15 minutes. Home tests for flu are not currently available.
Because flu is caused by a virus, there’s no cure if you do get sick. However, antiviral treatment is available. Tamiflu attacks the virus and keeps it from multiplying in your body, and it can shorten the duration of your illness and decrease the severity of your symptoms. It is only effective if it’s started within the first 48 hours of symptoms, and it’s only available with a prescription.
If you visit an urgent care clinic with flu or another influenza-like illness, your doctor can give you a few tools to help you feel better. Injectable steroids and antivirals can help reduce the severity of your symptoms. Antibiotics are never effective at treating the flu, but they may be used in treating secondary infections.
Home Care for Flu
Home care is especially important for people who have the flu. Good home care, including rest, fluids, and over-the-counter treatments, can help prevent secondary infections and dehydration when you’re sick with the flu.
- Rest. If you have the flu (or any other illness), you should get as much rest as you can. You probably won’t feel like doing much as it is, but don’t push yourself. Enlist the help of family or friends, and sleep whenever you can – even if your symptoms are making it difficult for you to sleep through the night. You should not attempt strenuous exercise while you’re sick, but you should make sure to get up and walk around regularly (short, slow laps in your room or home as you are able) to help with congestion in your chest.
- Drink clear fluids. Because influenza causes high fevers and severe congestion, dehydration is a real risk and is responsible for many flu-related hospital visits. Drink plenty of clear liquids while you are sick. If your stomach is upset and you don’t feel like eating much, make sure to drink something with electrolytes (such as sports drinks or Pedialyte). You can also chew crushed ice or popsicles to stay hydrated. You should urinate every 4-6 hours while you are sick.
- Over-the-counter treatments. Fever reducers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help you manage your fever and reduce discomfort from body aches. Saline nasal spray can lubricate your nasal passages and a Neti Pot can help you flush your sinuses. You can also use a cool mist humidifier in your room to add moisture to the air and help ease your cough and congestion.
- Avoid contact with others. Influenza is very contagious. As with all other illnesses, you should stay home when you’re sick and avoid contact with others. You can still be contagious with flu 5 to 7 days after you get sick, even if you’re not running a fever.
Do not return to school or work until you feel better and you are fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications.
When to go to Urgent Care for Flu
Your urgent care doctor can’t cure your flu, but they can help you feel a little better. An urgent care clinic is the best place to go for quick, easy flu testing. Your urgent care clinic may even offer drive-up flu testing. An urgent care doctor can offer antiviral treatments for patients who test positive for flu and are early in their illness and may also recommend injectable steroids to reduce inflammation and help you feel better faster.
Urgent care is also a great place to go if you believe you’ve developed complications from the flu. Anyone, regardless of age or previous health conditions, can have complications from the flu. Be on the lookout for symptoms of complications or secondary infections, including shortness of breath or dehydration. You should also visit an urgent care clinic if you develop a new fever after starting to feel better.
Flu can also cause more serious, life-threatening complications. Skip urgent care and go directly to the nearest emergency room if you are experiencing:
- Difficulty breathing, especially when you’re at rest
- Severe chest pain
- Blue lips or face
No one wants to get sick with the flu, but if you do get sick, compassionate doctors at MedHelp are available to help. All five of our Birmingham clinic locations provide rapid flu tests and in-clinic treatment for patients with symptoms of flu and other influenza-like illnesses. Our clinics are also equipped with on-site labs and digital X-rays to quickly diagnose secondary infections such as pneumonia.
To get testing or treatment for flu in Birmingham, find a MedHelp clinic near you.
This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment in regards to any patient. Individual patients should always rely on the judgment of their physician or another qualified health provider. Always seek their advice with any questions you may have regarding your health or medical condition.