Health experts are reminding patients — especially those at high risk for flu-related complications — to seek medical attention at the first sign of flu. They also warn consumers taking over-the-counter medications to read warning labels and be aware of any potential side effects or drug interactions.
Is it the flu?
Even though symptoms for a cold and flu overlap, what is more suggestive of flu is the severity of symptoms, says Dr. Steven Joyal, vice president of science and medical affairs for Life Extension, a nonprofit research group based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
A cold is usually limited to runny nose, sinus aches or headaches. With the flu, sufferers are also likely to experience body aches, a sore throat, and possibly diarrhea and vomiting.
High risk? See doctor, stat
Health experts recommend that those at high risk for flu complications see a doctor at the first sign of symptoms. This "priority group," as identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, includes caregivers of infants younger than 6 months, health care and emergency medical workers, those 6 months to 24 years of age, and people 25 to 64 with medical conditions that put them at high risk for flu-related health problems.
"If you are over 65, have an underlying health condition such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, any kind of respiratory problem such as asthma, don't try to differentiate between the cold and flu, and see a doctor," Joyal said.
Medication: Timing is key
"Anti-virals work best when taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms," Joyal said. "If you're healthy, it's reasonable to wait that first 24 hours. After that, if you have still have a fever, you should probably see a doctor."
Whether it's the H1N1 or seasonal flu, sufferers will likely be prescribed anti-viral medication such as Tamiflu or Relenza. The latter is available in inhaler form and therefore is not recommended for those with respiratory problems, Joyal said.
If it's too late for anti-virals, and you now have the flu, a number of over-the-counter medications help relieve symptoms. For fever, acetaminophen, the main ingredient in Tylenol, helps bring down the body's temperature and relieves aches associated with the flu. Decongestants can help stuffy noses and sinus pain.
But as with all medications, Joyal recommends patients use caution when taking nonprescription drugs. For example, dextromethorphan is a common active ingredient in many over-the-counter cough medicines and can cause dizziness if overused, especially among the elderly. And Tylenol can be dangerous for those with liver disease or people who overindulge with alcohol, Joyal said. Those with high blood pressure or cardiovascular problems should avoid decongestants.
Stay away from the rest of us
If you're sick, stay home and avoid crowds, advised Dr. Scott Brady, medical director for Florida Hospital's Centra Care system of urgent-care clinics. "You'll get the rest you need to better recover, and you won't be passing it on to others."