By: Tracy Joy King, Pharm.D., Registered Pharmacist, Clinical Pharmacy Practice Resident
Flu season is here! Are you prepared? Did you know that if you are 65 years or older you at higher risk for the flu? People 65 years or older are also more likely to get severe complications from the flu or even end up in the hospital! The following information will give you tools to approach this season.
What are the best ways of protecting against the flu?
First, it is time to get your flu vaccine! Available at your local pharmacy or doctor’s office this is one of the most important things to do at this start of the flu season. This is especially important if you have certain medical conditions such as heart disease or asthma. Contrary to a popular rumor, you CANNOT get the flu from the flu shot. Please keep in mind that it takes around two weeks for the flu vaccine to work. In addition, the flu vaccine protects against the flu virus but not all types of viruses that may cause flu-like symptoms.
Next, protect yourself against the spread of germs! If there are people around you that are sick, make sure you limit your contact with them. Always avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth after being around in public. Most importantly, wash your hands and disinfect surfaces around you with sanitizer.
Do I have the flu?
Flu symptoms usually occur suddenly. If you have the flu, you may feel an abrupt onset of headache, fatigue, body aches or fever. Body aches can occur in the joints and muscles. You may experience a sore throat or headache. It is important to remember that fever may not occur in all people. People who are 65 years or older may be less likely to have a full-blown fever when they have the flu. Usually if you have a stuffy nose associated with your sickness, it is most likely the common cold.
What should I do if I feel have the flu?
If you feel like you have the flu, make an appointment to see a doctor right away. The doctor may prescribe you an antiviral medication that may help shorten the duration of your sickness. The current available antiviral medications against the flu include Tamiflu® (generic name oseltamivir) and Relenza® (generic name zanamivir). These medications are best taken at the start of flu symptoms.
Keep in mind that the flu is a virus. Antibiotics (such as amoxicillin or azithromycin) are NOT effective for treating the flu. Most people will not need any medication to get better from the flu.
It is important to get plenty of REST when you have the flu. Drinking clear fluids consistently will help prevent dehydration during this time. If you have a fever, a cool and damp washcloth may help relieve your symptoms. If you have a sore throat, gargling warm salt water may help. Lastly, do not forget that you should avoid contact with others during the period you are sick. It is recommended to stay at home at least 24 hours after your fever has resolved.
How do I use over-the-counter medications correctly?
Over-the-counter medications available at your local pharmacy may alleviate some of your flu symptoms. For any of the medications that you take it is important to consult either your doctor or your pharmacist if you have any concerns. Read all labels and information before using any over-the-counter medications. Below are some helpful tips:
Acetaminophen (Tylenol ®) can reduce your pain and fever during the flu. Though acetaminophen is usually well tolerated, it is may not be the best choice for those with liver disease or those who drink alcohol heavily.
Ibuprofen (Advil ®, Motrin®) and Naproxen (Aleve ®) are part of a group called the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These medications can also reduce your fever. It is best to take Ibuprofen or any of the over-the-counter NSAIDs with food because they may cause stomach upset especially if you have existing acid reflux disease. Also, if you have kidney disease or heart disease, Tylenol may be a better option.
If your fever is unrelieved (greater than 103 F) after three days or more or if you are experiencing any confusion or mental changes, it is time to seek help from a doctor.
Cough or Sore Throat
If you come into a pharmacy with a cough, one of the first things the pharmacist will ask you is what type of cough you have. It is important to find a product that will help the symptoms specific to what you are experiencing.
If you have a dry, hacking, nagging cough, you may need a cough suppressant. The most common cough suppressant is Dextromethorphan. If you see products that say “DM”, they most likely will contain this ingredient. This will act to help you cough less. However, if you have mucus this may not help you clear the cough. Make sure with your pharmacist that you are not on any medication that interacts with Dextromethorphan.
If you have a wet, mucus filled cough, you may need what is called an expectorant. The most common expectorant ingredient is Guaifenesin. Expectorants will help clear the mucus from your airways by thinning the layer.
If you have just a sore throat, lozenges may be your best over-the-counter treatment available. Lozenges may contain menthol, peppermint or zinc which help soothe the throat. Some lozenges that contain benzocaine may relieve pain but also cause some numbing on the tongue. You can also try sipping on warm tea with honey or inhaling hot steam from water in the sink.
Some cough and cold products over-the-counter contain decongestants such as pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine. These help in relieving nasal and sinus symptoms but not cough or sore throat. It is important to remember that these products may raise your blood pressure and cause sleeplessness and nervousness.
Overall, if you are one of the unlucky people this season to catch the flu, get plenty of rest and make sure that the medications you are getting from the pharmacy appropriately treat your symptoms. Know that your local pharmacist is a key ally to helping you find the best over-the-counter medication for you.