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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH

Flu

You are suffering from cough, body aches, headaches, and a mild fever. Do you have RSV, COVID, a common cold, or the flu? The answer is...it’s difficult to say! Welcome to my world; all of these diseases can look remarkably similar, and are quite common at this time of the year. We will touch on each here, but with flu season now upon us, let’s focus on that.

 

Flu season peaks between December and February. It’s caused by a variety of viruses that are transmitted through droplets of moisture when we cough, sneeze, or even just speak. We can be contagious before symptoms appear, and for seven days after. Flu viruses can settle and accumulate on door handles, kitchen surfaces, telephones, remote controls, etc. Note that COVID viruses are far less likely to be transmitted through surface contact.

 

Flu symptoms include cough, sore throat, headache, muscle aches and pain, runny and stuffy nose, fatigue, and fever. The flu typically lasts for five to seven days, but in the very young, old, or weakened, it can lead to significant complications, including pneumonia. RSV and COVID typically last longer, for up to two weeks, with similar symptoms. COVID may also lead to nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of taste or smell. The common cold, on the other hand, is typically mild, lasting under a week, with symptoms which include cough, sore throat, runny nose, fatigue, fevers, and watery eyes.

 

A nose or throat swab can usually diagnose flu, COVID, and RSV. However, in the peak of flu season, your doctor will likely treat flu if the symptoms fit, unless there is a different diagnosis. Treatment for the flu (and for all of these viruses) will usually involve nothing more than plenty of fluids, rest, and acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Signs of a more serious flu include difficulty breathing; persistent pain or pressure in the chest; persistent dizziness, confusion, or inability to arouse; severe weakness; or a fever that does not go away. Prescription antiviral medication (like Tamiflu or Relenza) is available, and of course, a severe case requires hospitalization.

 

The best approach to avoiding viruses is prevention. Vaccines are available for flu, COVID, and RSV. Clean surfaces before touching them, and carefully wash your hands before touching your face. If you are around many people, assume that some of them are carrying various viruses, and feel free to wear a mask.

 

At this time of the year in particular, we look forward to spending time with family and friends. However, if you demonstrate signs of contagious disease, you MUST stay home for everybody’s protection, and remain home until any fever has been gone (without use of medication) for 24 hours. If you must leave home, I urge you to wear a face mask and to wash your hands often.

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