Dr. Travis Stork, a board-certified emergency medicine physician and Emmy®-nominated host of the successful talk show, The Doctors, took some time to chat with our guest blogger, Dan. Dan is currently a sophomore at Emerson College and had some questions for Dr. Stork about fighting the flu, especially while living on campus.
Dan H: What are symptoms of the flu?
Dr. Travis Stork: Influenza is a respiratory illness and it can be mild to severe. Symptoms may include fever, muscle and body aches, fatigue, and dry cough, which may or may not be accompanied by sore throat and headache. Rarely, some people experience vomiting and diarrhea. You might not have all the symptoms; you may have just a few of them.
DH: What should I do if I have flu-like symptoms?
TS: The best thing to do is stay home because, if you’re out and about, not only are you not allowing yourself to rest, but you’re potentially spreading the virus. Stay home, drink lots of fluids to keep yourself hydrated, take over-the-counter fever reducers if desired, and eat healthy foods that don’t further compromise your immune system.
One caveat – and this is important – there are certain scenarios where people with the flu can get really sick, particularly if they have underlying illnesses, like asthma or another respiratory problem, or a chronic illness like diabetes. In those instances, you should talk with a doctor ASAP because there are antiviral treatments that, if they are taken within the first few days of symptoms, can reduce symptom duration and prevent potential complications. You need a prescription for those.
DH: How do I prevent getting the flu?
TS: You can do what I do every single year, which is get vaccinated. It can take a couple of weeks for the vaccine to prime your immune system. The beauty of getting vaccinated against influenza is that it greatly reduces your risk of getting it and, if you do get it, your symptoms are likely to be much less severe.
You’re not just doing it for yourself; you’re actually doing it for everyone around you. When you get vaccinated, you’re less likely to get the flu and, therefore, less likely to pass it on.
DH: Is the flu shot 100% effective?
TS: The vaccine is not 100% effective partly because it does not cover every single flu virus out there. It just protects against the most common viruses that scientists predict will circulate in that given year. However, it’s one of those things that I consider to be one of the easiest and best things to do for your health because it reduces your risk of getting the illness AND you’re less likely to pass it on to others as well.
DH: Are there any reasons I should not get the flu shot? Are there any alternatives?
TS: If someone has ever had any type of allergic reaction to the flu vaccine or any ingredient in the flu vaccine, there are some special considerations [for that]. Also if you’re not feeling well and think you may already be sick, the clinic may advise you to delay getting the vaccine.
[As far as alternatives,] the nasal spray vaccine is a little different in the way it works. It’s only recommended for those 2-49 years of age without underlying illness – which is where most college students fit. It’s a viable option for people who have an aversion to needles.
DH: What should I do if my roommate gets the flu?
TS: If you’re going to stay in the room while they’re sick, you have to be extra vigilant. That means keeping disinfectant wipes in the room and washing your hands regularly. If you’re in close proximity with your roommate, ask them – as extreme as it may seem – to wear a mask. It’s really a matter of being smart.
It’s also not unreasonable if your roommate wants some peace and quiet and to be left alone for a few days – just make sure you check in. That’s one thing you need to do as a roommate: be there for them… Get them fluids, get them healthy foods to help them feel better. But, if you don’t want to sleep there at night, it’s not unreasonable to crash with another friend for a few days.
DH: I have an exam this week. Can I go to class? When am I considered “not contagious”?
TS: You can be contagious up to a day before you have any symptoms and you can be contagious for up to a week [after that]. We traditionally say that about 24 hours after your fever goes away, your risk of being contagious is greatly reduced.
During that period, though, when you have a fever and are coughing, you should not go to class. [Getting over] the illness should be your focus. It’s not good for you and it’s not good for your classmates. Once your fever breaks, about 24 hours after that – if you feel better and aren’t coughing any more – your risk of infecting someone else will be low.
Are you the parent of a college student? These questions are for you.
DH: How do I deal with my child being sick while away at school?
TS: For most parents, when your kids are away at school, the biggest thing you can do is just be an emotional support for them when they’re not feeling well. There is not a lot you can do if you live 1,000 miles away. Just make sure your child is doing the right thing. They definitely need to stay hydrated and over the counter fever reducers can help them feel better when they need them. Make sure they are eating well. You can guide them through this whole process remotely!
DH: What should I include in a care package for my child when he/she has the flu?
TS: It should be all things meant to reinforce the message that you are trying to send your student – to feel better. [As I said before], they need fluids and they might need over-the-counter medicines. What you don’t want to do is send your child a ton of sweets, which may taste great but too much sugar actually suppresses the immune system. One of the reasons I wrote my last two books, The Doctor’s Diet and The Doctor’s Diet Cookbook is this whole idea of “food is medicine”. Send them foods that are going to help them heal and feel better.
DH: Should I bring my child home if he/she has the flu?
TS: If they’re in school locally, I think that makes a lot of sense. But, you have to remember, if they’re in school on the opposite coast, your child getting on a plane and flying home is not good for them, or anyone else.
DH: Closing thoughts?
TS: To me, the best medicine when it comes to things like the flu is prevention. That includes good hand hygiene, not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth during cold and flu season, and getting the vaccine. I’m an ER doc and I’ve learned how to treat a lot of illnesses, but the best way is to prevent it in the first place.
Find more information about Dr. Travis Stork here.