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Why your Ebola-like symptoms are probably the flu

BY   October 18, 2014 at 11:44 AM EST
> on January 6, 2014 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

A patient receives an influenza shot on Jan. 6, 2014 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Doctors say it’s best to not let seasonally normal fever, aches and fatigue grow into an Ebola false alarm. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Worried you might have the Ebola virus? Not so fast.

Just as mounting anxiety is sweeping the country, kindled most recently by a doctor testing positive for Ebola in New York City Thursday, cold and flu season is now within spitting (and sneezing) distance. And because documenting early symptoms of the two illnesses can be akin to plotting a Venn diagram, doctors say it’s best not to let seasonally normal fever, aches and fatigue swell into an Ebola false alarm — of which there have already been at least 5,000.

The CDC says flu activity in the U.S. normally begins as early as October, peaks between December and February and can last until May, during which time hospitals typically see more patients flood their waiting rooms.

The 2009 swine flu pandemic drove up trips to the ER by nearly 20 percent even in areas where the illness had still not yet appeared. This year, cold and flu season and the height of Ebola in the U.S. will inevitably coincide making for a panic-stricken perfect storm of emergency room visits.

“Our ‘flu fear’ study suggests that people indeed will be visiting emergency departments based on their fears of Ebola, regardless of whether they actually have any real risk,” William McDonnell, who authored a study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, told The Washington Post.

But while it’s a far cry from the novelty of Ebola stateside, influenza is much more of an inherent risk to Americans — and one for which we have answers.

Know your enemy: It’s hard to catch Ebola

Initial symptoms of Ebola are fever, sore throat, muscle and body aches, headaches, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea. Sounds a lot like that flu bug you seem to catch at least once a year, right? But unlike the flu, Ebola does not spread through the air, meaning it’s much harder to catch. 

Ebola transmission requires contact between bodily fluids like vomit, blood, saliva, urine or sweat with your eyes, nose, mouth or broken skin. When the immune system begins breaking down, the symptoms begin to show. This process takes anywhere from two to 21 days (though it’s typically between four to 10 days). (You can read more on how Ebola gets transmitted here.)

A key factor medical staff look for when someone wary of an Ebola infection goes to the hospital is the patient’s travel history, like whether a person has recently spent time in one of the West African countries where the virus is widespread or with someone who has.

Influenza, on the other hand, is easily airborne on droplets projected from coughs and sneezes that fly through schools, offices and households, but can be prevented with the annual flu vaccine. The CDC advises people to cover their coughs and sneezes, wash their hands frequently, and recommends that caregivers and infants six months and older get the vaccine.

Ebola symptoms, if left untreated, usually intensify after eight to 12 days, whereas influenza symptoms tend to fade. But in rare cases, the flu can lead to severe symptoms.

“We have a vaccine and an antiviral medication for influenza, and it still causes deaths,” said Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, the director of infectious diseases at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. “We have Americans afraid of Ebola, but fewer than 50 percent of Americans take advantage of the flu vaccine, and it’s something that’s going to be here. It’s coming.”

Ebola spreads fast, but fear spreads faster

Of course, it’s normal to feel anxious about a disease that carries a 70 percent death rate and has ravaged parts of West Africa, killing 4,555 people out of a total of 9,216 cases registered in seven countries, and been likened to the emergence of HIV. And while even the nation’s top infectious diseases experts say it’s possible in the coming days that we’ll see more Ebola cases, many still believe it’s unlikely that the U.S. will have an actual outbreak.

And in spite of the Ebola-centric media blitz, a majority of the public seems to agree.

An October national survey by the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of Americans have either a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the government’s ability to prevent a major Ebola outbreak.

If you’re looking for Ebola in the U.S., the easiest place to find it will likely be the headlines.

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