Let’s Talk about the Real Flu

I saw a post on Twitter the other day and it really made me laugh. It truly hits the mark on the reality of having a bad case of influenza (“the flu”).

The flu is nothing like a typical cold or mild upper respiratory infection. It is not a stuffy nose, sore throat, and some mild muscle aches.

You are sick. And I mean really sick.

You can feel like you were hit by a train, or the other analogy I hear all the time is feeling like you were hit by a transport truck. You have a bad cough. Your muscles hurt so much you can barely walk. You just want to lie in bed all day and you begin to feel like you will never be “normal” again! I have even heard people tell me they think they are dying.

Misconceptions about the flu

A big problem is the public’s use of the word “flu.” People say all the time that they have the flu, when in fact they don’t. They have a minor other type of respiratory virus that is not the actual influenza A or B virus. As a result, there becomes confusion over what a true case of flu is. People don’t think there is anything to worry about when in fact there should be some concern, particularly when you are at risk of complications.

The actual flu is predominantly a respiratory or lung infection. A dry cough is a very prominent symptom. You often become sick rather quickly with a high fever, severe muscle aches, headache, and feeling generally unwell, that “hit by a train” feeling. Most of the time, you feel terrible with influenza but get better after 7–10 days. It’s not fun and people often miss a lot of work or end up having to forego a vacation they were looking forward to.

Others are not so lucky. The main complication of influenza is pneumonia. Sometimes this is a viral pneumonia: inflammation to the lung tissue caused by the influenza virus itself. Other times, pneumonia, caused by bacteria, can set up shop in your lungs when they’re raw and inflamed. In that state, they become an easy target for any other infection that normally wouldn’t affect you.

I have seen plenty of previously healthy young people develop these complications and end up in respiratory failure in the intensive care unit. No one can believe that “the flu” could do this because they thought “the flu” was nothing to worry about, it’s just the sniffles and some aches. This kind of thinking needs to be addressed with better public health education and perspective.

People at risk

Luckily, most people with true influenza get better. Those at extremes of age, the young and the old, are at higher risk; and so are pregnant women, even if they are otherwise healthy. Anyone with a compromised immune system, such as a cancer or organ transplant patient, is particularly vulnerable.

It needs to be emphasized, though, that many healthy individuals can and do die from influenza. It’s rare but it does happen; I have seen it and it’s devastating.

What you can do

The best defense is to avoid exposure to others who are sick. Wash your hands a lot when in public spaces. Eat and sleep well to keep your immune system strong. Get the influenza vaccine to protect yourself and those around you who are at higher risk. The flu shot is not always effective for every flu season, but studies show that even if it doesn’t stop you from getting the flu, it may reduce the severity of your illness.

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