Winter means crisp white snow, Christmas celebrations, and the dreaded flu season for most households. A friend comes down with an unidentified sickness and gets shunned for 10-14 days to avoid contaminating others with hushed whispers of “I think it’s the flu” floating from person to person. Common complaints are, “’I don’t have time to be sick with the flu!’,  ‘You don’t have to share everything’, and ‘I would rather die than get the flu again.’”

The truth is that many illnesses are mistakenly labeled as the flu. The influenza virus can be a serious illness and knowing the symptoms of the flu can help you determine when you should seek medical care, or when you can crawl into bed and wait it out.

SYMPTOMS OF THE FLU INCLUDE:

  • Fever greater than 101 degree Fahrenheit
  • Headache
  • Body aches/ joint pain
  • Weakness
  • Excessive fatigue/ tiredness
  • Sore throat
  • Dry, non-productive cough
  • Watery nasal drainage
  • Watery, red eyes

Additional symptoms may include paleness, flushed face, sinus pressure, and earache (ear infections are common complications following the flu).  Notice the lack of gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea)? Gastrointestinal symptoms may rarely occur in children or elderly persons with flu, and in those with the H1N1 virus, but they are not normally caused by the influenza virus. Gastrointestinal symptoms are usually a sign of food poisoning.

FOOD POISONING AND GASTROENTERITIS

Food poisoning occurs when you ingest foods that are contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites. In an attempt to rid your body of these foreign substances, you might experience nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, and diarrhea. Despite what the media and advertisers would like you to believe, food poisoning is a very common occurrence and can come from take-out food, restaurant meals, and foods prepared at home.  Prevention includes hand washing and proper food handing, cooking, and preparation practices.

Gastroenteritis is an irritation of the gastrointestinal tract caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites (not transmitted through food). The symptoms are the same as in food poisoning, as is the treatment. Prevention includes good hand washing and infection control practices to stop the spread of the disease.

Most food poisoning symptoms subside after 24-72 hours, once the toxic substances are out of your body. Treatment usually includes replacing lost fluids, forcing fluids to treat dehydration, and medication like Tylenol or Advil to treat discomfort. Most doctors will tell you to allow the illness to run its course since the body will rid itself of the toxins and return to a normal state of operations without intervention as long as you stay hydrated. However, if symptoms persist for longer than 48-72 hours, or if you are having intense symptoms or are having trouble keeping down clear fluids, you should seek medical treatment right away.

Cold, Flu, or Sinus Infection?

HOW DO YOU TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A COLD, A SINUS INFECTION, AND THE FLU?

Colds do not normally produce a fever or body aches, but can produce al other flu-like symptoms. A sinus infection however, can produce flu-like symptoms including a fever. The determining factor is usually if your nasal drainage is clear, yellow, or green. Yellow or green mucous indicates infection and points to a sinus infection. The flu (uncomplicated) only produces clear nasal drainage. However, one of the complications of the flu can be a sinus infection. Seek medical evaluation if your fever goes away then returns a few days later or if you have discolored nasal drainage or severe symptoms.

TREATING THE FLU

Flu symptoms usually last for five to seven days, with symptoms occurring within four days of exposure to the virus. If you seek medical treatment within the first 48 hours of the start of your symptoms, your doctor can prescribe an anti-viral medication can that lessen your symptoms and shorten the length of your suffering. Otherwise, treatment involves staying hydrated, resting, and treating your symptoms with Tylenol, Advil, antihistamines, and over the counter drugs like Nyquil to make you more comfortable.

The general rule of thumb for treating any sickness is “when in doubt, check it out”. If you think you need to see a doctor, follow your instincts and make the appointment.  Only a doctor can determine for sure if your symptoms are abnormal and require medical treatment and only you can gauge how bad you’re feeling and he severity of your symptoms.