Things to Know About Flu Season
Joseph Toscano, MD, a leader in urgent care medicine with the American Board of Physician Specialties® (ABPS), recently sat down with the ABPS to share helpful information about flu prevention and treatment.
ABPS: Dr. Toscano, what should individuals do if they get sick with the flu?
Dr. Toscano: Influenza symptoms include some combination of fever, cough, headache, body aches, and sore throat. They are usually more severe than a simple “cold” and often start fairly suddenly. Fatigue is common, and with some flu strains, there is nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. When a healthy person gets these symptoms and flu is circulating in the community, there is no need for a test to diagnose flu. These patients should limit their exposure to others, rest, and drink plenty of fluids. Over-the-counter medications can be used for fever and other symptoms based on package dosing and precautions. Those who have probable flu and underlying medical issues, or who have family members with any of those issues, or who have more worrisome symptoms, should seek medical care.
ABPS: Which segments of the population are most at risk for complications from the flu?
Dr. Toscano: People most at risk for complications from the flu include those who have:
- COPD, pulmonary fibrosis, other chronic lung diseases
- Neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions
- Sickle cell disease and other blood disorders
- Diabetes (type I or II), pituitary and adrenal gland disorders
- Kidney and liver disease
- Inherited metabolic and mitochondrial disorders
- A suppressed immune system from cancer chemotherapy or other immunosuppressive medications or untreated HIV, for example.
Other at-risk individuals include children age 5 or younger, adults age 65 or older, pregnant women, and nursing home residents.
Different than people who are general healthy, those in any of these higher-risk groups who have probable flu or those who have probable flu and have at-risk family members should seek medical care. Those who are at risk for complications and have been exposed to someone with the flu may also benefit from seeking care for preventative medication.
ABPS: When should a person suffering from the flu seek treatment at an urgent care center?
Dr. Toscano: There are several medications that can reduce the severity of flu symptoms, shorten the duration of illness, decrease contagiousness, and decrease the chance of complications. Currently, these medications require a prescription and are strongly recommended for all flu patients at high risk for complications, as explained; for everyone else, these medications are optional. So, anyone with symptoms of the flu may seek care, but it is very important for those with high-risk conditions to seek care once they develop flu symptoms. Medications are most effective when started as soon as possible. They are less effective when started later than 48 hours after the onset of flu symptoms.
ABPS: When should a person go to an emergency room?
For most patients, an urgent care facility will be able to diagnose their flu symptoms and write prescriptions. But some symptoms or situations have a higher likelihood of needing more intensive treatment or diagnosis. These include patients with flu symptoms and:
- Moderate or severe shortness of breath
- Chest pain or abdominal pain
- Uncontrolled vomiting or diarrhea
- Unconsciousness, confusion, or moderate or severe lethargy
- Unexplained skin rash
ABPS: How can individuals best protect themselves from the flu?
There is no doubt that getting vaccinated—”getting a flu shot”—each year is the best prevention. True adverse reactions to the shot are very rare and the risk of getting the flu after vaccination, though never completely eliminated, is much lower. And if someone has had a flu shot and actually ends up getting the flu, the severity will be lower and the chance of complications is lower as well.
Dr. Toscano: How are urgent care centers managing this season’s significant flu outbreak?
Most UCs are increasing their staff coverage and taking precautions like making hand sanitizer more widely available and offering patients surgical masks. Some UCs have instituted flu-testing protocols to ease workflow and reduce wait times. Of course, educating patients about self-care, reducing contagiousness, and prevention through immunization are all crucial urgent care management strategies!