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Staying Safe From the Flu, as Told by an Internal Medicine Expert

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As autumn comes to a close, cold and flu season is right around the corner. We spoke with Jorjeta Tahtawi, MD, an internal medicine physician at AdventHealth Hendersonville on what to know about the flu to help you stay well this winter. 

Understanding the Flu Season

The winter months are known as cold and flu season, but why? “Flu season starts at the end of autumn. Influenza [flu] cases increase during the cold season because the influenza virus thrives in cold climates,” she says.

The cold weather is conducive to the flu virus, so it’s not that your immunity is weaker during the winter months. However, immunity often determines who gets the flu. “The influenza virus affects people of all ages, but not everyone gets the flu during flu season. People who have chronic conditions and underlying illnesses have lower immunity, which can predispose them to get the flu.”

What’s the Difference Between the Cold and the Flu?

The cold and flu aren’t the same, but it can be difficult to tell the symptoms apart, especially when you start to feel sick. “With cold and flu, many symptoms start and present in the same way early on,” Dr. Tahtawi says. “There’s a fine line between early cold symptoms and early flu symptoms.”

“Cold symptoms could be due to a virus or a bacterial infection, while the flu means infection with the influenza A, B or C virus. The difference is that cold symptoms only affect the upper respiratory tract.”   

While there is a vaccination for the flu, there aren’t any vaccines for cold symptoms. However, you can take steps to help prevent both illnesses.

Understanding Viral vs. Bacterial Infections

“A viral illness is caused by specific viruses, and the signs and symptoms vary by the kind of virus,” Dr. Tahtawi says. “With bacterial infections, specific bacteria cause the infection.”

Doctors provide supportive treatment for both illnesses, but the treatment of the illness is different, depending on whether someone has a virus or bacterial infection. 

“For bacterial infections, antibiotics are the answer. For viruses like the flu, we don’t have specific antiviral treatments except for Tamiflu, which is given in the first two to three days after a person gets influenza A or B.” 

Common Types of Winter Illnesses

Unfortunately, it's not always easy to know what type of bug you've caught because many of the common ones have similar symptoms. 

“During the winter snow and cold, people often get inflammations of the sinuses, ear infections, sore or strep throat, bronchitis and pneumonia or bacterial pneumonia,” says Dr. Tahtawi.

Along with the flu, common winter illnesses include:

  • Bronchitis
  • Otitis media, or middle ear infection
  • Pharyngitis, or sore throat
  • Sinusitis
  • Upper respiratory infection

Preventing Wintertime Illnesses

To steer clear of a cold, the flu and a host of other wintertime sicknesses, prevention is key. 

“Prevention of any illness is better than treatment, and prevention is often in your hands.” 

To stay healthy and well this winter, Dr. Tahtawi recommends:

  • Getting the flu shot
  • Avoiding handshakes
  • Avoiding processed sugar, which can increase the risk of infection in the body
  • Gargling with water and salt, or warm water and apple cider vinegar
  • Getting sufficient rest
  • Maintaining a healthy diet
  • Taking vitamin C and zinc daily 
  • Taking elderberry products, like capsules and lozenges
  • Staying well-hydrated
  • Washing your hands frequently and thoroughly 

“All of these preventative measures keep your immunity from dropping. When you have a strong immune system, you won’t contract infections as easily,” Dr. Tahtawi explains.

Vitamin C: Your Partner in Preventing the Flu

“Vitamins prevent viruses and bacteria from attaching to your cellular walls,” Dr. Tahtawi explains. She recommends increasing your dose of vitamins during the winter months, especially vitamin C. 

Dr. Tahtawi recommends taking 2,000 milligrams of vitamin C every day during the winter. “The dose of vitamin C is important, whether you get it in a capsule or tablet. You can’t get a concentrated dose from your food, so I always recommend capsules in addition to food sources like citrus fruits.” 

Why Getting Your Flu Shot Every Year Matters

People of all ages need the flu vaccine, and it’s especially important for the elderly  and adults with chronic health conditions, including diabetes and asthma. Getting a flu shot is far better than getting the flu. 

“Along with pneumonia, which is the most serious complication, the flu can involve infections of the central nervous system, like encephalitis and meningitis, along with other less-aggressive complications,” Dr. Tahtawi says. “The influenza vaccine prevents these things.”

Despite these facts, many people are skeptical of the flu shot, thinking that they will get the flu from a vaccine. “To say that the flu shot causes the flu is not correct,” she says. “The flu vaccine is highly purified now, compared to in the past, and the side effects from the vaccine are minimal.” 

If you do experience some unpleasant side effects after your flu shot, don’t be alarmed. “Less than 5% of people who get the flu vaccine experience symptoms like localized pain at the injection site, discomfort like a headache and a very low-grade fever, but these symptoms don’t last for more than 24 to 36 hours.” 
It’s important to get your flu shot annually, too. “Each year, the vaccine is prepared from the flu viruses that were collected in the previous flu season, meaning it is preventing the viruses that attacked people last season.”  

Additionally, it’s important to get your flu shot before it gets too chilly outside. “The right time for the flu vaccination is at the beginning of autumn. If it’s given too early, the effectiveness of the vaccine decreases before the winter season is over.” 

Dr. Tahtawi says late September or early October is the perfect time to get your flu shot. 

When to See a Doctor

If you feel like you’re getting sick, the first thing to do is take care of yourself. Dr. Tahtawi recommends treating your early symptoms by:

  • Gargling with salt and water
  • Getting rest
  • Taking Tylenol, Motrin or Advil
  • Taking a decongestant
  • Take Oscillococcinum, which is available in the grocery store

“If your symptoms are getting worse after 24 hours, it’s time to go to the doctor,” she says. See your primary care doctor, an urgent care center or a walk-in clinic if these symptoms get worse after 24 hours:

  • A temperature of 102F or higher
  • A painful cough
  • Blue or gray lips, skin or nails
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing or wheezing
  • Mental confusion
  • Severe headache
  • Shaking or chills
  • Skin rash
  • Worsening earache
  • Worsening sore throat

Whole-Person Care for Flu Season and Beyond

At AdventHealth Hendersonville, whole-person care is at the heart of everything we do. “For every person who comes to us, we advise them about diet, rest and even controlling anxiety,” Dr. Tahtawi says. 

“We tell healthy people to go into the day with an open heart and an open mind, because keeping a positive attitude is vital to your overall well-being.”

Take charge of your health and prepare for the season by getting your flu shot, and if you or a loved one have any symptoms of the flu, schedule an appointment with us. We’re here to not only help you feel better, but feel whole in body, mind and spirit.  

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