General Health & Wellness • Nov 15, 2012

What is the flu really?

I was eight years old the night that Elvis Presley died.  I wasn’t really old enough to know who he was, but I remember the date well because that was the night that I got the flu.  I was watching a tribute to Elvis’ life when I began to have the most unusual, intense pain in my eyes. Late in the evening, I went to my mother and told her “my eyes hurt.”  She sent me off to bed.  That night, I had chills, sweats and fever.  In the morning I began to cough and through the following day began to vomit anything I ate or drank.  It was miserable, painful and frightening.

I didn’t know that what I had was the flu until I entered medical school.  A classmate presented a history of medicine talk on the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and reviewed the history of flu pandemics and epidemics.  (This was years prior to the advent of the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, and as such, I had little understanding of the flu or its historical impact.)  She taught us that there was a pandemic in 1977 that primarily impacted children, and then I realized that what had made me sick on that memorable night was indeed the flu.

Growing up, people referred to the flu as anything that causes upset stomach.  Since then, I’ve met many people who refer to any cold with fever as the flu.  Frequently when I see patients, family members will say that someone at home is sick with the stomach flu or the flu, and it occurs to me that they may not be referring to the influenza virus proper but rather to a general illness causing upset stomach.

Over the last few weeks I have had the unfortunate honor of diagnosing several children with Influenza B.  I have also had many conversations with families about the pros and cons of the Influenza Vaccine.  So along those lines I thought I would share what I know of the flu in hopes of clarifying any conundrums out there about WHAT the flu really means, and WHETHER or not to vaccinate for it.

Here’s how to recognize the real deal:

  • If you feel like every system in your body is involved (head, throat, lungs, stomach, muscles, even skin) you probably have the flu.
  • In children we see chills, fever, sore throat, cough, runny nose, vomiting, diarrhea and poor appetite as the most common symptoms.
  • The illness comes on suddenly.  It is often accompanied by significant fatigue.

Here are my thoughts on the subject of the vaccine:

  • I remember the night that Elvis died because Influenza makes you feel TERRIBLE!  (The 1977 flu wasn’t even that BAD as flu strains go!)
  • I started getting vaccinated myself in medical school partly because I had to, and most certainly because I did not EVER want to feel that way again.
  • I also get immunized because I never want to get the flu at work and give it to: my husband, my children, my patients, my in-laws, my parents, my neighbors…you get the idea.
  • The flu shot almost always makes my arm hurt and gives me a sense of being a little bit sick for about 24 hours.  It in NO WAY compares to the pain of having the flu – even a really mild case.
  • I get my children immunized because I am afraid of the flu.  Every now and then, the flu can be fatal to children.  Combine that with “IT FEELS TERRIBLE!” and I can’t think of a reason not to immunize the boys.
  • There is a growing body of evidence to support the finding that giving the flu shot to people with egg allergy is safe.  (Ask your doctor their recommendation.)

If your child gets the flu, always remember that it can worsen quickly.  If your mom instincts tell you to worry, respect that feeling.  Children who do not act like themselves, are not waking up or who are having difficulty breathing should be seen by a doctor RIGHT AWAY…even if they were seen by a doctor earlier in the day, or are on treatment for the flu.

Finally, remember that Tamiflu is an antiviral that only shortens the course of the illness by about 24 hours.  Rather than killing the virus, it only acts to stop it from replicating.