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Flu Essentials: Navigating the Influenza Season with Confidence Part I

Posted on November 22, 2023
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Our partners at Roche discuss the benefits of the flu vaccine and timely testing to preventing the spread of influenza.

The simultaneous occurrence of flu, COVID-19, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) last year, often referred to as the tripledemic, has left many of us concerned about what to expect in the upcoming respiratory virus season. While the seasonality of the flu has been unpredictable, when it comes to  flu prevention and how to treat the flu, there are three things we can be confident about: 

  • Prevention is the most effective approach to mitigating severe disease. Beyond washing your hands with soap and water and staying home when you experience signs of respiratory illness, the primary method to reduce the severity of illness and minimize transmission is to get vaccinated.
  • Timely testing of symptomatic individuals creates an opportunity for early intervention.
  • The treatment effectiveness of influenza antiviral medications is highest when administered within 48 hours of symptom onset.

Influenza remains one of the most lethal yet vaccine-preventable illnesses in the United States, and although flu is prevalent, it is treatable. Receiving an accurate and timely diagnosis is of utmost importance to stop the spread of the flu.

Flu Symptom Mitigation is Possible

The benefits of flu vaccination extend beyond just mitigating severity or decreasing infection. Vaccination is known to reduce the gravity of the illness, and numerous scientific studies have consistently shown the effectiveness of flu vaccinations in mitigating the severity of illness in individuals who contract the flu despite having received the vaccine. 1

One particularly noteworthy study conducted in 2021 yielded compelling results that emphasize the advantages of flu vaccination. This study examined vaccinated adults who, despite their best efforts, still ended up hospitalized because of the flu. Vaccinated individuals who required hospitalization had a 26% lower risk of being admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) compared to their unvaccinated counterparts. This is a significant reduction in the likelihood of a more severe illness which could lead to prolonged hospital stays and increased medical costs.

The same 2021 study revealed another striking statistic. Vaccinated adults who found themselves hospitalized due to the flu had a 31% lower risk of death when compared with those who had not received the flu vaccine. This means that the vaccine not only diminishes the risk of severe outcomes like ICU admission but also significantly enhances an individual’s chances of survival if they do require hospitalization. 

These results show that the flu vaccine serves as a powerful tool in not only reducing the overall burden of influenza but also in sparing lives and alleviating the strain on healthcare systems during flu seasons, helping to protect vulnerable, high-risk populations, including the elderly, young children, and those with compromised immune systems.

Testing Early Is Key to Treatment

The recent flu season has been particularly challenging due to a surge in respiratory viruses, resulting in what is referred to as a tripledemic involving COVID-19, influenza viruses, and RSV. With similar symptoms among these viruses, testing has become crucial for accurate diagnosis. Fever-reducing, over-the-counter medication, fever-reducing medication, and staying home can only do so much. When symptoms become severe, it is important to be tested to prevent complications.

Two main types of tests, antigen and Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), are recommended for prompt diagnosis. The Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) suggests using rapid influenza molecular assays for outpatient diagnosis. 2

However, the presence of multiple viruses has made it difficult for healthcare professionals to accurately diagnose patients based solely on symptoms or clinical experience, leading to a relatively low accuracy rate. 3 This diagnostic challenge can result in unnecessary prescriptions of antibiotics and antiviral drugs.

What Are the Treatment Options for Flu?

When individuals experience common flu virus symptoms such as coughing or sneezing, sore throat, fever, and an overall sense of achiness they must take proactive steps. Undergoing timely testing and receiving an accurate diagnosis is pivotal to remaining in the timeframe where early treatment becomes possible. This reduces the duration of illness and the higher risk for complications that may result from waiting to treat flu-like illnesses.

Antiviral medications, such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu), are often most effective when administered within the first 48 hours of symptom onset. These medications can help to mitigate the severity and duration of the illness, potentially preventing complications and reducing the overall burden of the disease.

Additionally, early detection and intervention can help to limit the spread of the virus to others. The flu is highly contagious, and prompt isolation or precautionary measures can minimize the risk of infecting family members, friends, and coworkers. This not only safeguards the well-being of the infected individual but also plays a vital role in the broader public health effort to control the transmission of the virus.

Timely testing and diagnosis when experiencing flu-like symptoms are essential for managing the illness effectively. Early intervention not only reduces the duration of illness but also minimizes the risk of complications, protects the health of others, and supports broader public health efforts to control the spread of contagious diseases like the flu.

References:

Ferdinands, J. M., Thompson, M. G., Blanton, L., Spencer, S., Grant, L., & Fry, A. M. (2021). Does influenza vaccination attenuate the severity of breakthrough infections? A narrative review and recommendations for further research. Vaccine, 39(28), 3678–3695. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.vaccine.2021.05.011 

Uyeki, T. M., Bernstein, H. H., Bradley, J. S., Englund, J. A., File, T. M., Fry, A. M., Gravenstein, S., Hayden, F. G., Harper, S., Hirshon, J. M., Ison, M. G., Johnston, B., Knight, S. L., McGeer, A., Riley, L. E., Wolfe, C. R., Alexander, P., & Pavia, A. T. (2018). Clinical Practice Guidelines by the Infectious Diseases Society of America: 2018 Update on Diagnosis, Treatment, Chemoprophylaxis, and Institutional Outbreak Management of Seasonal Influenza. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 68(6), e1–e47. https://doi.org/10.1093/cid/ciy866 

3 Hansen, Glen. 2018. “Clinical decision making in the emergency department setting using rapid PCR: Results of the CLADE study group.” Journal Clinical Virology 102 (May): 42-49. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7106512/ 

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