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Is the flu actually an epidemic? André Picard tackles your flu questions Add to ...

Flu symptoms – fever, cough, muscle ache – tend to come on quickly and last five to 10 days. The best treatment is rest, to let your immune system concentrate on the task at hand. Drinking plenty of fluids is important to avoid dehydration. To shorten the duration and intensity of your suffering, you have to treat the symptoms. In studies, antiviral drugs – Tamiflu and Relenza – lessened duration by about one day on average, but they are prescription drugs that have to be taken immediately after onset and the evidence that they make a marked difference in the real world is pretty weak. Pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and acetylsalicylic acid (ASA or Aspirin) can ease fever and muscle ache. But use them carefully. Never give ASA to children because it can lead to Reye's s syndrome, a rare but serious illness affecting the brain and liver. And be aware you can overdose on Tylenol and suffer grave liver damage. Hot water bottles and warm baths are pleasant, safe treatments for muscle pain. Many flu sufferers like to use a humidifier or gargle warm water to ease their cough. Cough syrup is largely ineffective; hot herbal tea with honey or chicken soup works just as well for a throat tickle. Again, never give non-prescription cough syrup to children, it can suppress breathing. Some physicians recommend avoiding caffeinated beverages because caffeine is a diuretic. In short, though, time is the best healer.

If you get the flu, how do you know if you should see a doctor or just let the virus run its course at home? – Tanya, Montreal

The flu is unpleasant but most people don’t need to see a doctor or go to the emergency room. There is not much health professionals can do for you other than tell you to rest and drink plenty of fluids. However, influenza can, in some cases, cause pneumonia (inflammation of the lungs) and severe dehydration, both potentially life-threatening conditions so you have to aware of your symptoms worsening rather than lessening over time. An adult with the flu who suffers significant shortness of breath, chest pain, sudden severe dizziness or persistent vomiting should see a doctor immediately. In high-risk flu sufferers – meaning babies, frail elderly, people with lung diseases like asthma, or the immune-compromised – signs of labored breathing, bluish skin colour, fever with rash, or severe lethargy should be treated as a medical emergency.

I’ve heard that some people have a type of flu cough that lasts 100 days. Is that true? Harriet, Toronto

“100-day cough” is a common nickname for pertussis, also known as whooping cough. Pertussis is a bacterial infection; influenza is a viral infection. They are not the same thing. However, there are currently large outbreaks of pertussis in some regions of Canada and the U.S. occurring simultaneously to flu outbreaks and that has caused some confusion. The one thing that the flu and whooping cough do have in common though is they are both vaccine-preventable illnesses.

What happened to the pandemic flu that we heard so much about in 2009? - Marcie, Halifax

A pandemic flu is a strain that has never been seen before, meaning no one has natural immunity. The pandemic flu, formally called A/California (H1N1), came and went and it is now a ‘normal’ flu. In fact, there is still a little bit of H1N1 circulating in Canada. But the dominant strain, the one that is making most people sick, is A/Victoria (H3N2).


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