Influenza, or flu, is a viral infection that usually affects your respiratory system. Image Credit: iStockphoto

Stuffy nose, body aches and a fever - is it the common cold or do you have the flu that’s going around?

Medical practitioners in the UAE say there has been a surge in flu patients the past few months.

Dr Jyoti Upadhyay, specialist - Internal Medicine at Aster Hospital, Mankhool told Gulf News there were 107 cases of Type A flu patients treated at her hospital.

“We also had someone with H1N1 and the patient had to be admitted to ICU.”

What is it?

Influenza, or flu, is a viral infection that usually affects your respiratory system. For most, the infections subside at a normal pace. However, depending on the type of flu you have, it could get worse. Knowing the difference between the types is critical to getting the right treatment.

The viral infection that seasonal flu is tends to start spreading in the autumn (September to December) and reaches its peak during the winter months (December to February).

Viruses that can cause influenza are categorised into Types A, B, C and D.

Types of viruses

Types A and B are the most common ones responsible for human illnesses and flu seasons – out of which Type A is usually responsible for flu pandemics (epidemic of disease that has spread across a large region).

Type B, which also causes influenza, can spread only from human to human, unlike Type A, which can spread from animals to humans.

For example, the widespread H1N1 pandemic that was first detected in humans in 2009 is from a Type A virus. It is now a regular flu virus, and is included in the flu shots. Bird flu, swine flu etc. are also caused by Type A viruses.

flu virus
Break out: Several different flu virus strains emerge in the latter months of the year. Image Credit: AFP

Type B viral flu is dangerous in critical cases and highly contagious, like Type A, but the mutation of the virus is slower and is limited to humans.

Type C viruses cause mild illnesses only and do not cause epidemics, while Type D doesn’t affect humans.

The interesting part about the seasonal flu is that there is a constant 'survival of the fittest' going on with the virus strains.

The strains mutate and compete, in a way, to dominate the flu season. Predicting the dominant strains is a challenge, but this is what helps health officials determine what flu shot to give out each season. This is also why a flu shot is only effective for six months.

Dr Sanjay Paithankar, Managing Director at Right Health in UAE told Gulf News: “Flu is secondary to seasonal change and cold wave. It is a variant of influenza.”

He explained there are several types of virus floating around. “So if you are immune to a virus you could get the flu bout again as it could be another virus affecting.”

So effectively, even if you are immunized against one type of influenza strain (family of influenza) – you could contract the flu again from another virus.

- Dr Sanjay Paithankar

But couldn’t it be the common cold?

Certain symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, and a runny nose are common to both colds and flu. However, there are some ways to differentiate a flu from a cold.

A flu comes on very suddenly while a cold builds up over a few days. The flu is always accompanied by fever marked by high temperatures.

The flu lasts for a shorter period of time (up to 5 days) while common colds can last longer. However, fatigue from the flu can leave you feeling weak for a long period of time, unlike a cold.

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When should I go to the doctor?

“Almost immediately,” said Paithankar.

Symptoms of the flu include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, body ache, headaches, fatigue. For children, nausea and diarrhea is also common. If you have been feeling feverish for a couple of days with all or some of these symptoms, it’s time to visit the doctor.

According to Dr Saima Khan, General Practitioner, Medcare Hospital Al Safa, symptoms of a severe flu include a high grade fever with headache, runny nose, throat pain, cough. She has been treating at least three to four patients with flu every day.

She added, “Some people experience shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting. Some people also present abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Other patients come with body ache, fatigue and de-hydration.”

What’s the treatment?

There is no complete cure for the viral flu.

However, some people get very sick because of complications arising from the flu – for example pneumonia, bronchitis etc. This is why getting diagnosed as early as possible can help avoid complications.

Anti-viral drugs are administered for people who are very sick or at risk of developing complications.

“In most cases, the patients have been tested positive for Type A flu. They are treated with Tamiflu tablets. A nasal swab test is done to determine the type of flu. Type A is a more potent virus and needs to be diagnosed and treated immediately,” Khan explained.

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All Type A positive flu cases are notified to Dubai Health Authority (DHA)

She commented that treatment for both Type A and B flu involve Tamiflu as both affect the respiratory tract. Khan said that all Type A positive flu cases are notified to Dubai Health Authority (DHA).

“The patients mostly come to the emergency as their condition is severe. Type A flu is a more concern for us than Type B flu. If you see the severe flus that made headlines in the world like the Sars, Swine flu all fall under Type A,” Khan added.

High-risk groups

High-risk groups include:

- Children younger than five (children under two are at greatest risk)

- Senior citizens (65 and above)

- Pregnant women and women who have just given birth and,

- People with chronic illnesses and/or weak immune systems.

This includes adults with diabetes, chronic kidney diseases, heart or pulmonary conditions and those undergoing chemotherapy (which results in a weak immune system).

What should I do?

Your doctor will prescribe the best treatment for you, based on the severity of the flu and other factors. Usually, lots of fluids and proper rest at home is the best treatment for the flu in a healthy person. It is also critical to ensure minimal chances of spreading the virus by being extra careful with hygiene and staying home from work or school. The infection is highly contagious in the first few days of the flu.

“And if you have Type A, especially children, they should stay at home and rest. They must not attend school as they will spread the virus to other children and adults,” Paithankar said.

Stay away from crowded areas and use a mask. If somebody you know has the virus, keep away from them.

- Dr Paithankar

For children and high-risk individuals, the infection can stay contagious for longer.

Could I die from the flu?

Rarely, but yes. 36,000 people died in the US in the 2018-2019 season, according to data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr Upadhyay told Gulf News, if untreated for a long time, Type A flu can be fatal.

“Early detection and treatment is critical. If the flu is not treated on time, it can lead to pneumonia,” she added.

Khan, from Medcare, added that all Type A positive flu cases are notified to Dubai Health Authority (DHA).

What about the flu shot?

The flu vaccine, more commonly called the flu shot, can help prevent getting sick to a limit. The risk for severe outcomes in adults is cut by more than one-third with a flu shot.

In October 2019, the Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP) announced that the seasonal influenza vaccine, available at hospitals and primary health care centres, would be provided until March.

In the UAE, the vaccination covers several strains of influenza, including the deadly H1N1 strains. This is available for Dh50 in private clinics, while high-risk people can get the shot for free in government clinics.

- Inputs from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention