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The Informed Parent

I Had the Flu Yesterday…Not!

by Louis P. Theriot, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Mar. 09, 2007

My brother called a few days ago asking to visit and to get some medical advice. He sounded dreadful, informing me that he and his wife were "sicker than dogs". They both teach at the high school level. It seems that a large percentage of the students were absent because of the "flu".

When asked what was going on he said, "We both felt fine on Friday. In fact we had to turn in semester grades and it was a big relief to be done. To celebrate, we went out to dinner and then saw a movie. Everything was fine until the next day when I felt like I had chills and aches. I don't think that I had a fever, but by mid-morning I had terrible stomach cramps. Then came the was non-stop. I must have gone a total of 15 times on that Saturday," he went on to explain.

Did his wife have the same symptoms? Interestingly enough, her symptoms were aches and chills, and vomiting but no fever or diarrhea. "I really felt bad for her," he continued. "She would try to take sips of Gatorade and it would come right up. What a weekend!"

As it turned out, Sunday was almost as bad as Saturday. But by the day we talked on Monday they were both feeling much better and actually were able to go back to school. He then asked, "We never want to go through that again! It's so difficult being surrounded by so many students who have the flu. And we are in such close quarters, I guess it's inevitable that we are going to get it. Isn't the stomach flu really contagious?"

Did they have the stomach "flu"? NOT!

Mrs. K. brought her 14-month-old to the office for a possible ear infection. She herself sounded sick as she had a raspy voice and a mild cough. When asked about it she shrugged her shoulders and said, "Both my husband and I have had this darn flu for the past three weeks. It's not like we really feel sick at all. It's just that our sinuses feel like they are going to explode, and we have this persistent cough. I haven't had any fever. I'm eating just fine and I have a lot of energy." Then she lamented, "I'm go glad that we had baby Chloe get the flu shot so that she doesn't have to go through this. My husband and I are mad at ourselves for not getting the flu shot. We could have prevented all of this, huh?" NOT!!

I was in the check-out line at the market around Christmas time when a neighbor came up and started talking. Halfway through our conversation he shook his head and said, "Boy, you must be swamped this winter with all the flu that is going around. I had it real bad yesterday and the day before. I had a sore throat, fever and felt like I was hit by a truck." I asked him if he had a cough, and he said no.

He went on to tell me about a concoction that his family has used for generations for the flu with remarkable results. It comes from the old country and requires an assortment of citrus juices, honey, tea, and a large amount of alcohol. He then professed, "As soon as I got the flu, I drank a cup of it and voila. I felt fit as a fiddle in just 24 hours. If you want, I'll write it down for you in case you get the flu, too." NOT!!!

These little vignettes are heard every day during the winter months. The most notable thing about these stories is that not one of them involved the actual flu. The flu refers to influenza which is a specific virus that occurs during the winter months. It is primarily a respiratory illness. There are three genera or types of influenza, A, B, and C. However, most epidemics are caused by A or B. Influenza is highly contagious and is spread by nasal droplets (sneezing and coughing) or by direct contact with influenza-contaminated surfaces. The incubation period is short, around 1-4 days, with a mean of 2 days. One may actually become contagious during the 24 hour period before the symptoms actually start. They may shed the virus for a full 7 days.

The symptoms of influenza, or the flu, are a sudden onset of fever, often with chills and shakes, headache, malaise, sore muscles and a dry non-productive cough. The fever may be quite high and can last for 3-4 days. Some individuals may complain of a sore throat or have red, bloodshot eyes. Usually when one gets the flu, there is no question that they are ill. The actual flu typically lasts for more than 1-2 days. The cough may persist for some time after all the other symptoms have resolved. It is not uncommon for a person to say that they felt "wiped-out" for a good week after the flu symptoms ended.

My brother was asking me about the "stomach flu" that he and my sister-in-law experienced one weekend. In all reality, no such thing exists. What they had was a viral gastroenteritis, or a viral intestinal infection. This is caused by a number of different viruses and is highly contagious. Most cases of viral gastroenteritis resolve in a couple of days with simple conservative measures as was the case with my brother and his wife. And although he referred to his illness as the stomach flu, I knew exactly what he was talking about. However, they truly did not have the flu.

Mrs. K. was asking if she and her husband might have avoided the prolonged illness that they shared if they had received the flu shot. It would not be very likely since the illness that they had was some non-specific virus that many people get during the winter and NOT the flu. They had neither fever nor any of the constitutional symptoms that one usually gets with the flu. Above all, they really did not feel that bad. Since both had chest x-rays ruling out a pneumonia, and both had a course of antibiotics which seemed to make no difference in their illness, it was most likely a viral infection. During the winter we all come into contact with friends and relatives who have this lingering cough or cold that just will not go away. And, in most cases, it is not the flu.

The same conclusion goes to my good intentioned neighbor whom I ran into at the market. He had no cough which is a given with the flu, or respiratory infection. He did have a fever, but he was well within 36 hours. This just doesn't happen with the flu, regardless of whatever elixir or concoction one takes.

What's more, when I talked with him it was during the end of December. I know for a fact that we had not seen influenza in the Long Beach area at that specific time. The incidence of specific infectious diseases are tracked very closely and reported every month. We did not see a significant rise in the number of influenza cases until mid-January.

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