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Fighting Flu Together: Know Your Flu Testing Options

child being tested for the flu
Posted on March 16, 2023
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The 2022-2023 influenza (flu) season has been unpredictable, hitting earlier than usual with high rates of hospitalizations across the country, and with more than 115 pediatric deaths. The flu is serious and impacts everyone in our communities. It is still one of the deadliest vaccine-preventable diseases in the U.S. While the flu is widespread, it can also be treated. Before a patient can receive treatment for the flu, it’s important to be tested to ensure you receive proper care. Knowing your testing options can make all the difference for not just you, but for your family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors.

Why Testing for the Flu is Essential
This past flu season has been unprecedented with higher rates of respiratory viruses, characterized as the “Tripledemic” (COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). With different viruses circulating and some symptoms overlapping, it can be easy to confuse them. That’s where testing comes in. It’s fairly simple and quick to test for flu and other viruses, and should be done at the first sign of symptoms.

Symptoms of the flu include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Fatigue or Extreme Tiredness
  • Muscle or Body Aches
  • Dry Cough
  • Sore Throat
  • Runny or Stuffy Nose
  • Vomiting and Diarrhea, (ore common in children than adults)

With overlapping symptoms, many labs and doctor’s offices offer highly accurate tests that can identify more than one virus at a time with a single sample. An educated guess based on symptoms or experience has been shown to be less effective; another reason why testing is essential.

The Different Types of Tests
There are two main types of tests to diagnose these different respiratory infections: Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and Rapid Antigen.

PCR tests detect genetic material, making them very accurate and reliable. They are typically administered at a doctor’s office. Results can take minutes to hours. Rapid Antigen tests can be given at a doctor’s office or testing facility, in addition to purchasing online or at retail facilities for a self-testing option. Results are available in just 15 to 20 minutes.

So which one is the right choice? PCR is recommended for anyone needing definitive results – including high-risk people and their family members or close contacts. PCR tests can:

  • Provide your doctor with more accurate test results.
  • Help doctors confirm COVID-19 and the flu for treatment when similar symptoms are present that make diagnosis difficult.
  • Provide the best option for early detection when treatment is most effective.

Multiplex PCR tests can identify COVID-19 and influenza viruses in one swab.

The CDC recommends confirming test results with PCR or a series of antigen testing
for a negative antigen test, due to the potential risk of false negatives.

Remember, it’s always important to talk to your healthcare provider when it comes to your health.

Download this infographic for information on testing options.

Diagnosis and Treatment
If you are symptomatic, don’t wait to get tested! When properly tested and diagnosed early, you can get early treatment, decreasing the duration of illness and risk for complications that are associated with influenza (more reporting can be found here and here). Most flu and COVID-19 antivirals are most effective when prescribed within 48 hours and fives days of symptom onset, respectively. Antiviral treatment is expected to lessen fever and symptoms and shorten the time you are sick. In addition, they potentially can reduce the risk of complications such as ear infections in children, respiratory complications requiring antibiotics, and hospitalization in adults. They can truly be a game-changer if taken early enough.

If you test positive for respiratory viruses and have been around people at high risk of complications, it is necessary to inform them of possible exposure because, if they get sick, they have the chance to seek out testing and treatment immediately.

According to the CDC, influenza vaccination is safe and effective and is the single best way to help protect yourself and your family from the flu each year. Vaccines have been shown to reduce doctor visits by 40-60 percent. You can read more here on COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.

Protect yourself and those you care about with proper testing to keep you and your loved ones safe throughout the respiratory season.

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