By Eduardo Gonzales, MD
How bad is the ongoing flu epidemic? What can we do to prevent this disease? —firstname.lastname@example.org
Contrary to reports circulating on social media, the Department of Health (DOH) said during the last week of January that there was no influenza or flu outbreak in the country. According to the DOH, there has been no unusual increase in flu cases in the country for the past many months. In fact, their data show that the incidence of influenza nationwide dropped by 17 percent in 2018 compared to 2017, from 153,000 cases to 126,000.
If there has been a noticeable, albeit unconfirmed, increase in the number of people getting sick or hospitalized for upper respiratory tract infections the last few weeks, this is probably because aside from the usual number of flu cases, there might have been a surge in cases of cold and illnesses caused by other seasonal viruses. Nevertheless, even if there is no flu epidemic, we should take precautions because flu and the other seasonal viruses are endemic throughout the year.
Cold versus Flu
Cold and flu are sometimes difficult to tell apart, but they are two distinct conditions. Cold is a generally mild illness while flu, although also often benign, sometimes complicates and becomes a serious disease. The deadly complications of flu include pneumonia and sepsis. Particularly vulnerable to these complications are the very young (infants and children below five), the elderly, and the debilitated or those with underlying illnesses such as heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes.
Cold and flu are viral infections that have similar modes of transmission, but their causative viruses are different. Over 200 viruses cause cold while only three, although each has many strains, produce flu. The cold and flu viruses enter the mouth or respiratory tract by inhalation of droplets that are coughed, sneezed, or exhaled out by people with the disease; by direct contact with secretions from infected people; or, by touching contaminated objects and then touching the nose or mouth with the hands.
Cold and flu share many symptoms—fever, cough, sore throat, and body malaise—but the symptoms of flu are usually more severe and they come more abruptly. In flu, fever is higher, headache is more common, body aches are more severe, and fatigue and weakness are more pronounced. Runny and clogged nose, on the other hand, are common in cold but rare in flu.
Treatment for cold and flu
Treatment for both cold and flu conditions consists of bed rest, liberal fluid intake, and analgesics—such as paracetamol and ibuprofen—and a decongestant to relieve fever, aches and pain, and nasal stuffiness.
Antiviral agents such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu), zanamivir (Relenza), and peramivir (Rapivab) are now also increasingly being used for flu, especially for people who are at high risk for complications. These drugs can lessen the symptoms and shorten the duration of the disease but they are rather expensive.Antiviral treatment works best when started within two days of becoming sick with flu.
How to prevent flu and cold
Personal hygiene and avoidance of people who are sick and crowded places can help prevent flu as well as cold and other seasonal viruses. Frequent washing of hands with soap and water and refraining from touching one’s eyes, nose, or mouth will also help.
Another measure to ward off flu is by getting a flu shot (i.e., immunization or vaccination) annually.
In the Philippines, two types of flu shots are currently available. The trivalent flu vaccine protects against two influenza A strains and one influenza B strain while the quadrivalent flu vaccine protects against the same strains as the trivalent vaccine plus an extra influenza B strain.
The flu vaccines provide only 65 to 80 percent protection against flu in young adults and just 30 to 40 percent protection in the elderly, but those who develop flu even when already immunized have a lower risk for complications.
When to get the shot?
The best time to get the flu vaccine is before the start of the flu season, which in the Philippines, coincides with the rainy season, i.e., from June to September, sometimes up to December. Thus, the best time have the shot is between February and June, ideally March or April, but it is still ok to get the shot outside these months.
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