The first week of December is National Influenza Vaccination Week (NIVW), an initiative that aims to raise awareness about the importance of getting your flu shot. Founded by the CDC in 2005, this week serves as a reminder that it’s not too late to get vaccinated, even during the holiday season. If you suffer from chronic pain and flu symptoms, you know it can be challenging to decipher which one you’re facing and how to manage your pain.
There’s a public misnomer that the flu is just a “bad cold,” but that’s actually not true. The flu can lead to health complications and even death, which is especially risky for chronic pain sufferers. 80,000 people in the U.S. died from the flu and its complications last year, the most common being pneumonia. Kim Porter, model and longtime girlfriend of music mogul Sean Combs, died last month after battling “flu-like symptoms and possibly pneumonia.” Her autopsy failed to cite specifics, and her exact cause of death has been “deferred pending additional tests,” but sources close to her have linked her death to the flu-like symptoms she was battling.
When it comes to being hospitalized from flu complications like pneumonia, the numbers are staggering. Out of the 49 million flu illnesses in the 2017-2018 flu season, around 960,000 people were hospitalized. The flu is especially dangerous for high-risk individuals, which the CDC classifies as the elderly, young children and people with weak immune systems.
In honor of National Influenza Vaccination Week, it’s important to to highlight the similarities between chronic pain and flu symptoms. A variety of illnesses are associated with seasonal flu, impacting everyday concerns such as school attendance, worker absenteeism and daily productivity. We must know how to differentiate those symptoms and battle them with a tough and appropriate line of defense.
What is the flu?
Seasonal influenza is a virus that attacks the respiratory system and is highly contagious. A cough or a sneeze can easily spread the virus from one person to another. If you touch the same doorknob or share a drink, you can also spread the illness.
That’s why flu epidemics can force schools and businesses to close: you’re contagious one day before symptoms present themselves, so you don’t even know you’re sick.
Flu symptoms are severe
What differentiates the flu from the common cold or allergies is how fast it hits your immune system. While you may feel a cold come on gradually and worsen, the flu attacks your system quickly.
“The most noticeable difference with the flu is the onset and severity of symptoms,” Dr. Tania Elliott, an allergist and immunologist in New York City, said. “A cold will come on gradually. You may have some aches and congestion, but you’re still going to work…with the flu, it’s like you’re hit by a bus.” A sudden high fever is another sign it might be the flu, not a cold.
Flu symptoms that can be similar to cold symptoms include things like congestion, cough, runny/stuffy nose and a low fever. Severe symptoms that are more aligned with the flu include things like a high fever, headaches, body aches and extreme fatigue. The body aches tend to be the main differentiator from a cold versus the flu.
Flu symptoms in chronic pain sufferers
In fibromyalgia, sufferers often describe the pain associated with a flare-up as flu-like. Chronic pain and flu symptoms can indeed be hard to differentiate. The only way to know for sure is to visit your doctor. A rapid influenza diagnostics test can determine if it’s the flu or something else. It’s a quick, painless test that can be a swab sample from your nose or throat. You can even visit nationwide chains like Walgreens and CVS for these tests at their in-store clinics.
If you do test positive for the flu as a chronic pain sufferer, it’s important to be mindful of your medications and disclose all medications to your doctor. We have use similar medications to treat chronic pain and flu symptoms. For example, acetaminophen is in more than 600 prescriptions, including the OTC medications commonly used to treat flu symptoms, so you don’t want to unknowingly take too much. It’s common to manage chronic pain with acetaminophen, but taking too much can have severe consequences. People are 24% more likely to exceed the maximum recommended dose of acetaminophen (4,000 milligrams) at during flu season.
If you’re a chronic pain patient taking prescription-strength pain medicine, consult with your doctor if you get the flu, as she may need to adjust your dosage. An acute respiratory illness like the flu can cause different underlying risks when mixed with pain killers.
Misconceptions about flu vaccinations
When it comes to understanding flu vaccinations, it’s important to get your facts straight. Think about it like this: even though there are hundreds strains of the flu and it mutates often, the best defense is to get vaccinated.
Flu strains in humans are classified into three categories: A, B and C. A typical flu shot can protect you against three or four strains of the flu. And if you’re protected, you’re also protecting everyone you come in contact with including babies, young children, co-workers, those who immunocompromised and the elderly.
It’s much safer to get the influenza vaccination than to risk getting the flu virus itself. While there can be dangerous complications from the flu, there are not dangerous complications from getting vaccinated. Serious allergic reactions to the flu vaccine are extremely rare and treatable.
Flu vaccine facts to consider
If you’re managing chronic pain and flu symptoms, you need to protect your immune system from additional stressors. The flu vaccination will help you do that. Consider these stats:
- A 2018 study showed that from 2012 to 2015 flu vaccination among adults reduced the risk of being admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) with flu by 82%.
- A 2017 study showed that flu vaccination reduced deaths, intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, ICU length of stay and overall duration of hospitalization among hospitalized flu patients.
- A 2018 study showed that among adults hospitalized with flu vaccinated patients were 59% less likely to be admitted to the ICU than those who had not been vaccinated. Among adults in the ICU with flu, vaccinated patients on average spent 4 fewer days in the hospital than those who were not vaccinated.
Now that you know what the science tells us, if you haven’t yet been vaccinated for the flu, you can easily do it during National Flu Vaccination Week from December 2-8. Help spread the word about chronic pain and flu symptoms and importance of protecting yourself and your community this flu season.
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