‘Tis the season for the flu. Fa la la la la…

Ok I may be a little early (and mutilating a holiday favorite tune) but this is the time of year to start thinking about the flu and whether or not to get the flu shot.

How to tell if it’s a cold or the flu

Maryann Buetti-Sgouros MD

Maryann Buetti-Sgouros, MD

As a doctor, I am often asked how I know the difference between the flu and a common cold. My short explanation is that the flu is not a slow-developing illness, while the common cold is.

My favorite description of the onset of flu came from one of my teen patients who told me: “ I was 100% fine but then at 5:10 in the afternoon, all of a sudden I had chills, a headache, a sore throat, body aches and felt like I was gonna die!”

The flu is NOT subtle; it prefers to hit like a ton of bricks.

The common cold, on the other hand, tends to develop slowly… a sniffle on Day 1, a cough on Day 2, along with a fever perhaps and a sore throat. The flu is usually a good 3-7 days in duration while the common cold, if uncomplicated, lasts a bit longer if you consider that it slowly comes on and then slowly goes away.

Early flu diagnosis is key to early treatment

Diagnosing the flu is possible in a physician’s office by using rapid assays (diagnostic tests) which can detect both of the common influenza viruses: type A and B. The benefit of early diagnosis is that a patient can take anti-flu medications which shorten the duration of the illness by about 1-2 days. Close family members can also be given early treatment to prevent onset of the flu if a household member is diagnosed with it. Although a 1-day reduction in the duration of the flu might not sound like much, it means fewer missed days of school and work, and less days of misery. Worth it!

Whether or not to get the flu shot 

The other thing patients often ask me is whether they should get the flu shot. My answer is always yes. (I usually take the vaccine on the first day my shipment arrives). When pressed for an answer why, I always give my usual reason (which may sound selfish)….I cannot afford to get the flu! I literally can’t afford to stop being a doctor and a mom while I deal with the flu. Plus, I would never want to give it to my patients and I wouldn’t want to risk catching it from one of them.

Some people state that they do not get the flu shot because they always come down with the flu from the vaccine. This misconception comes from the fact that whenever you get a vaccine, your body mounts an immune response to produce antibodies to defend itself in the event that it contracts that illness in the future. But this is what most people do not realize: every vaccine can cause this and the mild reaction you have is usually a minor version of the illness you are protecting yourself against. (For instance, if you read the vaccine information sheet on varicella, it mentions a mild fever and perhaps a rash. If you read the information on the tetanus shot, it mentions a mild fever and muscle ache.)

Since the virus in the vaccine is dead or at least significantly weakened, I like to remind patients who are questioning the vaccine that if they get a mild response to the vaccine, just imagine what the response to the actual flu virus would be like.

Protect yourself against the flu…come in and see us

Flu vaccines are already arriving in our Westchester Health Pediatrics offices (12 locations), so scheduling a flu shot for you and your family is just a phone call away. Don’t put it off – come in and get vaccinated.

The old saying really is true: Better safe than sorry!

By Maryann Buetti-Sgouros, MD, a pediatrician with Westchester Health Pediatrics