What your doctor wishes you knew about the flu

[5 MIN READ] 

In this article:

  • While some people compare the flu to the common cold, those who have experienced it will likely say it is much worse.

  • Dr. Lichfield, a family medicine physician, shares some of the most important facts you should know about the flu and flu symptoms.

  • Everyone should get a flu vaccine, including young and healthy adults. It contributes to “herd immunity,” which is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of the flu.

Influenza is one of the most common illnesses afflicting Americans — especially during the fall and winter. Most people know something about the flu — what the symptoms are, how to treat it and how serious (or not serious) it is in the list of illnesses you could acquire.

But what does your doctor wish you knew about the flu? And how important do they think getting the flu vaccine is for, say, a young and healthy person?

We spoke with Rob Lichfield, D.O., an urgent care and family medicine physician for Providence in Spokane, Washington, about some of the most important things you need to know this flu season.

What is the flu?

A lot of times, people assume they have the flu when they actually have another, less serious virus.

“Many of us use ‘the flu’ as a catch-all description for ‘being sick’ with any of the varied combinations of viral symptoms that most of us experience multiple times per year,” says Dr. Lichfield. “When many say, ‘I have (or had) the flu,’ they really had a common cold or other viral illness. This makes discussion and awareness of ‘influenza’ by cultural association seem like ‘it’s not a big deal.’”  

To be clear, influenza is an infection of the nose, throat and lungs. Unlike the common cold, which develops gradually, the flu comes on suddenly. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Chills and sweats
  • Shortness of breath
  • Body aches
  • Tiredness
  • Sore throat

“Influenza causes predictably more severe, longer lasting and more debilitating symptoms than the common cold,” Lichfield says. “It also causes far more deaths each year. Many who have had confirmed influenza will note from their experience that the overall illness was ‘much worse’ than a common cold.”

The importance of the flu vaccine

While it’s especially important for young children and adults over the age of 65 to get a flu vaccine, this immunization is vital for other people, too. “We lose young, healthy people to influenza every year at our hospital,” says Dr. Lichfield. “It’s also important to contribute to herd immunity by having as many people vaccinated as possible.”

The influenza vaccine doesn’t protect against every strain of the virus, but it provides immunization from many of them. “Influenza is a dynamic and elegant monster,” Dr. Lichfield says. “It is the ultimate ‘moving target’ for the talented and brilliant people whose lifework each year is trying to develop the vaccine. The vaccine makes us notably less likely to contact influenza or spread the disease. It commonly makes our symptoms less intense and the condition less dangerous if we do get influenza.”  

The relationship between COVID-19 and the flu

While COVID-19 and influenza are two completely different diseases, they are related in that people tend to associate them with each other.

“For the last several influenza cycles,” Dr. Lichfield says, “folks would commonly get vaccinated for both influenza and COVID at the same time. Some doctors worry that even fewer people will get immunized for influenza this cycle, since we anticipate that fewer will be vaccinating for COVID. We anticipate this for multiple reasons, including fewer COVID cases, misunderstandings about vaccine and population health science, and pandemic fatigue.”

Brian Simmerman, M.D., division chief of pediatrics for Providence Medical Group – Inland Northwest Washington, points out that precautions taken during the COVID-19 pandemic decreased other viral illnesses in communities.

“Now, as we’ve returned to ‘normal,’ resuming life without the COVID precautions, we’ve seen a resurgence of influenza and other viral illnesses,” Dr. Simmerman says. “During COVID, the number of annual influenza cases was less than typical. That rebounded last winter. We expect that trend to continue, and we continue to be vigilant observing what is happening with our younger patients born during COVID. They had diminished illness and exposures in their first two years of life, and we’re waiting to see what impact that has on response to common viral illnesses like influenza.” 

Antibiotics and the flu

Because the flu is a viral infection, antibiotics typically won’t help. “The vast majority of people with confirmed influenza do not need, and should not take, antibiotics as part of their treatment plan,” says Dr. Lichfield. “Taking antibiotics unnecessarily puts our bodies at risk of problematic and sometimes dangerous tissue and organ reactions, and it risks the destruction of the ‘good bacteria’ in our intestinal tract.”

The takeaway: Get your flu shot at your doctor’s office. Stay home when you’re sick. And don’t assume you’re fine just because you’re young and healthy.

Learn more about how to manage your child’s flu.

Contributing Caregivers

Rob Lichfield, D.O., family medicine physician for Providence Urgent Care in Spokane, Washington

Brian Simmerman, M.D., division chief of pediatrics for Providence Medical Group – Inland Northwest Washington

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Related resources

How to protect yourself this flu season

RSV, Flu and COVID: What you need to know

Managing a cold or flu at home and when to see a doctor

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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