Seasonal Flu Update

By ALPA Staff

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this fall issued a Health Alert Network Health Advisory, raising particular concerns about the alarming number of influenza cases already reported in the United States this flu season. The Public Health Agency of Canada has also reported a spike in cases, adding that with the recent weekly percentages of positive tests for flu well above the seasonal threshold, the country could easily be headed for a flu epidemic later this year.

The flu is an infection of the nose, throat, and lungs—the primary components of the respiratory system—and kills nearly as many people annually as motor vehicle accidents, consistently ranking among the top 10 leading causes of death for both nations. Typical symptoms include body and head aches, fever, coughing, runny nose, and general fatigue.

The virus is spread by droplets created when infected individuals cough, sneeze, or talk. These tiny beads of moisture can be inhaled or ingested or transmitted by coming into contact with a surface or object that contains the virus and then touching the mouth, nose, or eyes. Flu sufferers are typically contagious from one day before symptoms appear up to four days afterward. Some individuals recover within a few days, but others may suffer for as many as 10 days to two weeks after the onset of these signs.

Those afflicted may develop complications including sinus and ear infections and pneumonia. Other possible resulting conditions include inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis), or muscle tissues (myositis or rhabdomyolysis). Individuals at the greatest risk of more severe complications include those over 65, adults with certain chronic health conditions, and those who are pregnant.

The good news is that there are measures you can take to protect yourself. The CDC advises, “The single best way to reduce the risk of seasonal flu and its potentially serious complications is to get vaccinated each year.” For individuals adverse to needles, the vaccine also comes in an effective nasal spray, subject to availability. The CDC also recommends avoiding those who are sick, covering your face when you cough or sneeze, and regularly washing your hands.

Keep in mind that flu vaccines don’t eliminate your chances of catching the virus, but they do greatly reduce your risk of infection and the severity of your illness. In addition, vaccinations may vary in effectiveness due to the differences in each year’s strains. For example, if you’ve had the flu, your body may produce antibodies to help combat that specific strain of the virus you’ve contracted. However, those antibodies may not completely protect you from a new strain.

Be aware that most flu shots contain traces of egg proteins. The CDC advises that while individuals with egg allergies can “receive any licensed, recommended, and age-appropriate influenza vaccine,” those who’ve experienced serious reactions to eggs “should be supervised by a health-care provider who’s able to recognize and manage severe allergic conditions.”

If you have flu symptoms and are at a heightened risk of complications, see your health-care provider. If you have difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, pain or pressure in your chest or abdomen, or feel dizzy, confused, weak, or unsteady seek medical care as soon as possible.

Tests are available that can detect the flu and typically require a health-care professional to swipe the inside of your nose or the back of your throat with a swab and send the sample to a lab for results. In addition, there are antiviral drugs your doctor can prescribe to treat the virus. You’ll want to take them as soon as possible after the onset of your symptoms to reduce the duration and intensity of your illness.

The flu and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses and share many of the same symptoms, but their sources and treatments differ. COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2, whereas the flu is produced by an influenza viral infection.

Have Questions?

ALPA members with questions about the flu are encouraged to contact the Aviation Medicine Advisory Service, ALPA’s Aeromedical Office. Call 303-341-4435, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. mountain time, to speak with a physician.

This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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