Flu Season Is Here!

By Dr. Sandra Allison | Chief Medical Health Officer for Northern Health
January 4, 2019 - 9:26am
Photo Credit: Adrian825 | Dreamstime.com

Protect yourself and others from all seasonal viruses by washing your hands, coughing into your elbow, staying home when sick and seeking medical care if your symptoms are getting worse. Getting vaccinated for influenza can prevent disease and complications and also protects the most vulnerable.

A different reason for the season

As long as the flu has been recognized, people have asked, “Why in winter?” The very name, “influenza,” comes from the Italian “influenza di freddo”, or “influence of the cold.”1 There are many theories as to why respiratory illness ramps up in wintertime including overcrowding, air circulation, increased surface contact (with things like door handles) and respiratory droplet exposure (from coughing and sneezing), as well as the characteristics of the viruses that circulate. And there is the inevitable argument that children in school are elite-spreaders of viral infections in our communities; not unreasonable given several outbreaks have been traced back to children in schools.

Whatever your favourite reason, flu season is predictably a winter phenomenon in both the northern and southern hemispheres, and public health plans every year to decrease the burden of illness related to seasonal influenza and other respiratory viruses. In BC, “flu season” is traditionally from November to March each year during the coldest months. And this year, Northern BC is already seeing more influenza-like illness than in previous years, as reflected in numbers of doctors’ visits.2

What is influenza-like illness?

Influenza-like illness is a respiratory illness caused by any number of viruses which can easily be mistaken for, and in fact can be indistinguishable from, seasonal influenza. Rhinovirus, parainfluenza, adenovirus, coronavirus, enterovirus, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are some of the common respiratory viruses we see every flu season in British Columbia.

What is the difference between “the flu” and the common cold?

Fever, cough, muscle aches, headache, chills, and fatigue are the more common symptoms of influenza infection. Influenza symptoms are often more severe and can lead to serious complications.3 Generally, a common cold will bring milder symptoms including sneezes, runny or stuffy nose, and usually not a fever. Uncommonly in children, influenza causes gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.

What about the “stomach flu”?

Viral gastroenteritis is the technical term for “stomach flu”, and is not actually influenza.

The most common viral cause of diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain and cramping are common gut viruses, such as norovirus. 4 Rotavirus, adenovirus and astrovirus are some other culprits; and while some bacteria can cause gastroenteritis, they do not have a big role in flu season.5

Why do we care about seasonal influenza?

Seasonal influenza gets a lot of attention because of the important opportunity to prevent illness through vaccines and education. Severe complications, including hospitalization and death, cause significant burden to the health system and are preventable.6 Publicly-funded vaccination programs have historically worked to increase herd immunity in communities to resist influenza infection and prevent serious complications in the most vulnerable and reduce the burden on the healthcare system.

How to protect yourself and your family during flu season?

Staying healthy is a good place to start. Stress and any other behaviour that breaks down your resilience and wellbeing can impact your immune system. You can avoid substances including tobacco, cannabis and alcohol to decrease the negative impacts they have on your physiology. Certainly, don’t smoke indoors. Improve your level of physical activity by walking regularly, and you can improve your nutritional status by maintaining a healthy diet that meets your energy needs. Influenza vaccine is a safe and effective intervention to reduce the burden of influenza illness, and is the most important action you can take to reduce influenza in your community.

How can we stay healthy when someone in the house is sick?

Wash your hands frequently. Try to keep the sick person isolated as possible. Don’t share cups, utensils, blankets or pillows, and children’s toys. Don’t forget to throw away the toothbrush when you get better!7 And again, stay healthy through diet, activity and sleep. Get vaccinated.

What can I do if I am sick and I don’t want to infect others in my house?

Coughing into your elbow and carefully discarding soiled tissues are critical as respiratory secretions spread viruses. Wash your hands frequently, try to steer clear of others in the house as much as you can, especially if they are vulnerable due to a compromised immune system, or they are very old or very young. While both colds and flus can be miserable experiences, neither of them require antibiotics to recover; just TLC, patience to heal, common sense to not make others sick and confidence to know when to seek medical help.

Should I go to work with the ‘flu?

No, if you have serious influenza-like illness and not just the common cold, you should stay home! Flu symptoms will make anyone feel terrible enough that you won’t likely want to go to work or school - and coworkers and classmates won’t likely thank you for sharing. Worse yet, if you have “stomach flu”, you should not be at work in food service in any public setting; wait until you have felt better for two days before you go back to making food for the public. If symptoms persist beyond a few days, get checked out by your doctor - Typhoid Mary made a lot of people sick!

Flu season is a predictable opportunity to prevent disease; rather than being surprised it’s that time of year again, we can reduce illness by proactively vaccinating against influenza. Routinely and frequently washing our hands, staying home when we are unwell and keeping to ourselves until we are feeling better, and seeking medical care if you feel like things are getting worse, are important ways to reduce the spread and severity of disease.

Also, “man flu” isn’t a thing.

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