Chronicle Health: Health Tips: Flu, ILI, and Other Winter Maladies

Phil Brewer MD FACEP

There is an old riddle that goes: “When is the best time to plant a tree?” The answer is, “thirty years ago!” So when is the best time to get a flu shot? Last November!

We are at about the halfway point of the flu season and the daily line-up in the Student Health Center of people who both look and feel miserable is impressive. Influenza is an acute viral illness, like a cold only much more intense. It is caused by a group of viruses which constantly mutate and spread around the world to infect millions of people each year. It typically originates in parts of Asia where the practice of raising farms animals in close proximity to human habitations promotes ever new viral strains. (Because of the mutations, the vaccine results in less than 100% protection.) The virus spreads rather easily from person to person through coughing, sneezing, and hand contact.

This year’s strain starts with a sore throat and coughing followed by chills and fever (a.k.a. “Shake and Bake”) severe body aches, and intense fatigue. For some of you reading this, this is an all-too-recent memory. After being totally slammed by the onset of the illness, you can look forward to a few more days of less intense illness, often with sinus congestion, poor sleep, and finally a week or so of feeling better but having low energy. In addition to the physical discomfort, having the flu results in missed classes and athletic activities as well as difficulty in studying and working on projects and papers.

There is no surefire weapon against the flu, but there are some things that can lessen its impact. First and foremost is to get a flu shot every year. They are offered free of charge each year by the Student Health Center but the vaccination rate is low. Flu spreads like a chain reaction which can be stopped by reducing the number of people who are susceptible but this requires a high percentage of people being vaccinated. The low rate of vaccination combined with the closeness of dorm living ensures that once the flu virus comes to town it will affect a sizeable proportion of the student population. We need to find ways to greatly increase the vaccination rate.

Once the flu strikes, the key to early recovery is REST. It is possible to treat influenza with Tamiflu but it must be given within 48 hours of the onset of illness. Ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) every four hours keeps the chills and aches to a minimum. Having a humidifier promotes moist breathing passages and reduces sore throats. I frequently advise students whose parents live three hours or less from campus to consider going home for two or three days if possible.