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Topics > Healthy Outlook > Doctor Provides Answers To Common Flu Questions

Doctor Provides Answers To Common Flu Questions

Published by Contra Costa Times
Posted on Sun, Nov. 28, 2004
By Stephen Daniels, MD

Here are answers to questions people often ask during the current flu shot shortage:


In general, only about 10 percent to 20 percent of Americans get the flu annually, and about .01 percent (1 in 10,000) will die of it. Many more people die in car accidents. So, your odds this year are about 80 percent to 90 percent that you won't get the flu, and 99.99 percent that you will not die of it.

How Can I Prevent Flu?

Most flu is communicated by coughed or sneezed droplets that contain the flu virus. An infected person can spread the virus for about a day before feeling ill. Wearing a surgical-type mask can diminish your risk of spreading and getting the flu, but for most people frequent hand washing or using a waterless hand sanitizer helps prevent the flu spread by touching. Using a disposable tissue for sneezing, coughing and wiping your nose can also help. If you are exposed to someone with flulike symptoms, consult your doctor. There are specific medicines you can take to prevent the flu. (See below.)

Is It The Flu Or Just A Cold?

You can't always tell, but there are some general distinctions. The flu usually comes on rapidly, within eight to 12 hours, with fever (100 degrees or greater), severe head and body ache, exhaustion, then cough and chest pain. Nausea and vomiting may accompany the flu, but it is primarily a respiratory illness. A cold generally starts more slowly, with a scratchy throat for a day or so, then chills and achiness but no fever. Body ache, sore throat, nasal congestion and cough evolve over a number of days and are generally more bothersome than debilitating. Both the flu and a cold can last a week or more.

When Should I Go To The Doctor?

Worrisome symptoms include unusual shortness of breath or persistent chest pain, vomiting of all food and fluids for more than eight hours, confusion, persistent fever of 103 or higher and cough for more than three weeks. Those with chronic conditions such as diabetes and diseases of the heart, liver, lung and kidney should consult their doctor. If you are in doubt, call your doctor, or go to the nearest emergency room.

What's The Best Treatment?

Rest and drink plenty of fluids. Tylenol, Advil and similar medications can help the fever and aches of colds and the flu.

There are two types of flu virus, A and B, but in recent years, more than 90 percent of cases in the United States have been type A. Your doctor can distinguish between a cold and the flu, and between the two types of flu by testing a mucus sample from inside your nose.

Flu medicines are effective only if started before or within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. These medicines are:

  • Amantidine and rimantine: Both are pills taken twice a day, effective to prevent and treat influenza A only. Amantidine is less expensive, and approved for children.
  • Relenza: An inhaled medicine taken twice a day for both influenza A and B, it may worsen asthma or lung disease.
  • Tamiflu: A pill taken twice daily to prevent and treat influenza A and B.

Don't panic if you can't get the flu shot. Take precautions, and consult your physician for severe symptoms or if you are exposed to someone likely to have the flu.

Dr. Daniels practices Family Medicine at the Pittsburg Health Center.

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