I’ve missed a bunch of really good stuff during the past few weeks: walking our Everly Rose home from Grade 2, watching Baby Zack take his first steps, long phone chats with my sister up-island, or writing last Sunday’s blog post here on Heart Sisters. Also: Getting dressed. Brushing my teeth. Washing my hair. Feeling like a human being. In fact, I’ve been at death’s door (sort of) with a brutal case of influenza – commonly known as “the flu”. And let me assure you, the flu is NOT “just like a cold”. .
My flu symptoms have been awful (and remember, I say “awful” as a person with lived experienced of a ruptured appendix, broken bones, arthritis, a misdiagnosed “widowmaker” heart attack, and popping out two babies the old-fashioned way, which is merely to let you know: I know my pain.
The freakish part of being at death’s door with influenza is that severe symptoms tend to strike so suddenly!
In fact, this may be your first clue that you do indeed have influenza, and not the common cold or other respiratory illness. The rhinovirus that causes colds, by comparison, typically starts slowly, with 1-2 days of feeling “a cold coming on” before things blossom into a full-blown mess.
Influenza, on the other hand, distinguishes itself by starting abruptly and out of the blue. That specific morning, for example, I’d gone for an early walk in the sun with CP (my Monday walking buddy), then had a lovely visit over coffee, then stopped at the farmers’ market on the way home to pick up veggies. Perfectly normal morning. Felt fine.
But not long afterwards, the “normal” plans for the rest of my day evaporated in one hot minute. The first symptoms were fever and a searing sore throat, immediately followed by an explosion of dry hacking cough. It hurt to talk. It hurt to swallow. It really hurt to cough. Everything hurt.
A “dry” cough, by the way, sounds and feels different than the “productive” or “wet” cough of the common chest cold. The dry cough sounds like someone hacking up a lung. It carries a consistent, rough tone because it doesn’t contain the slimy mucus of a wet cough. And it’s persistent, a kind of painful loop of coughing that irritates an already dry throat, so the cough can keep coming and coming with very little relief in between coughs. It’s actually hard to stop coughing once you start – sometimes, yes, for hours. The only tiniest good thing about my particular cough is that I never once felt short of breath, meaning I was still able to inhale between coughs. This is important: if you’re unable to catch your breath, call 911.
Like most adults, I’ve had countless colds over my long life, from mild to severe, but I can’t recall ever having the flu before – because for decades I’ve been getting my annual flu shot, which have been offered each year since 1945.
Influenza is particularly dangerous for heart patients. People with heart disease are more likely to get the flu than those with any other longterm chronic illness, and worse, we’re at higher risk of developing serious complications from the flu – ranging from pneumonia to bronchitis, heart attack or death. The flu can also make diabetes, asthma or other chronic conditions feel much worse. If you’re one of those patients, call 911 for any signs of a health emergency.
After the first week of the flu, I began to wonder: could this be COVID? I knew that respiratory infections can share similar symptoms, so it’s often hard to tell the difference. I’ve done several rapid-antigen COVID tests so far (everybody I know has home packs of test kits, available free from local pharmacies). My tests were done about 2-3 days apart, all negative. (Keep in mind, however, that home COVID tests are sometimes known to produce false-negative results).
But whether it’s the cold or flu or COVID, I knew that all viral infections are very contagious. I learned from a local nurse that influenza is most contagious during the first 3-4 days. Keep yourself away from infants and people with chronic illness or weakened immune systems during that time.
Ironically, I became very sick just before my scheduled flu shot. I asked the nurse if I should still plan on getting my flu shot as soon as I’m well enough – even though I’m guessing I’ll have immunity to the flu by then. But she explained that the nature of most viral infections is that we do develop antibodies to the specific kind of virus we catch. So yes, I will likely be mostly protected by my new antibodies from catching the one specific type of influenza virus that I caught – but only that one type. Keep that flu shot appointment, the nurse warned. It’s our very best defense against what can be a really dreadful illness – one that can be very dangerous in those with heart disease. Yet a study in the Journal of the American Heart Association reported that people already diagnosed with heart disease continue to have low flu vaccination rates every year – despite their higher rates of death and complications from influenza. UPDATE: November 4, 2022 – Five days after I ran this post, I was able to get my flu shot! It was one of two approved vaccines that are recommended this year specifically for people over age 65 in my region.
Every year, our British Columbia public health professionals study predictive models to learn which strains of the flu virus will most likely be prominent during the coming flu season. Viruses like to mutate (consider the number of COVID-19 variants that have emerged so far). That’s just what viruses do. So for the 2022-23 flu season, the annual flu vaccine available in my region is designed to protect against different strains of influenza virus:
- Influenza A (Victoria H1N1)
- Influenza A (Darwin H3N2)
- Influenza B (Austria)
- Influenza B (Phuket).
It was the H1N1 influenza virus that caused the 1918-19 flu pandemic, killing an estimated 50 million people world-wide, almost 30 years before the first flu vaccines became available. Influenza A and B viruses are generally responsible for our seasonal flu epidemics every year. NOTE: your own community’s range of anticipated influenza strains each flu season may or may not be the same as ours.
I also learned from the nurse that the severe cough common in influenza can continue up to two weeks after we’re no longer contagious. This is similarly found in COVID-19 infections (although let’s face it, if I start coughing in public the way I’ve been coughing here at home for almost three weeks, everybody around me would freak out). I’m not going anywhere with a severe cough.
In case you missed it, just this past week Vox ran a timely article by Dylan Scott called “Why Everybody You Know is Sick Right Now, including this:
“With the country stepping down from the pandemic footing of the past few years, these various respiratory viruses are now on the rebound. Cases of seasonal influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV, a common respiratory bug that can occasionally turn serious for infants and older adults) had been held down in 2020 and 2021 because people were wearing masks and taking other public health precautions to avoid Covid-19.
“But almost all official pandemic policies have lapsed, most people have returned to some or all of their pre-pandemic activities, and immunity to other common viruses may have waned after two years of largely avoiding them.”
As you can tell, I did somehow escape death’s door and am hopeful that I will soon turn a corner. I’m still feeling like I’ve been hit by a large bus, but compared to the first couple of weeks, I feel better! Well, except for this new case of pink eye (conjunctivitis) – a common eye infection linked to respiratory infections. Oh, joy. . .
Finally, here’s what I did learn about how to treat influenza if you too get it:
-Anti-viral drugs are available by prescription, but work best only when taken in the first few days after the onset of symptoms.
-Drink lots of fluids (it’s easy to get dehydrated during the flu). Speaking of drinking fluids, remember to keep taking your prescribed cardiac meds every day.
– Try to eat healthy foods while you’re recuperating. If your family or friends ask what they can do to help while you’re sick, do NOT say “Oh, nothing, thanks!” (For me, all I wanted was flat ginger ale and Lipton Chicken Noodle Soup, which was the magic medicinal combo my Mum gave us when we were kids). But I sure appreciated family and friends who dropped off homemade soup and other goodies for me.
-Try over-the counter cold and flu medicines, throat lozenges, or Tylenol to ease your symptoms. (NOTE: If you have heart disease, Tylenol is your safest pain relief choice. Avoid taking any drugs with ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Aleve, etc.) because of harmful cardiac side effects.
-Use a vaporizer in your bedroom to help you breathe easier by increasing moisture in the air. One night, I was so miserable during a long coughing fit that I ran very hot water into the bathroom sink, draped a big towel over my head and shoulders, and just leaned over the sink for several minutes, breathing in the steam. This seemed to temporarily help, so I repeated this routine regularly during the past few weeks.
-Stay home. Put everything on hold until after you’re no longer contagious. This not only helps you recover, but staying home also prevents spreading your flu virus to others.
-Revisit your trusty old COVID precautions that got us through the first two years of the pandemic: wear a mask any time you’re outside your home, wash your hands often with soap and water, don’t stand or sit close to people, cover your mouth when you cough, use hand sanitizer after you’ve been touching strange doorknobs, elevator buttons, etc.
-Get lots of rest. Naps are good.
– If – like me – you didn’t get your flu shot before you got sick, please book your appointment as soon as you are able.
Q: Have you ever had influenza?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about adjusting to serious illness in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”. You can ask for it at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).