I'm sure you're as sick of reading about it as I am of writing about it, but the flu this year has been out of control, and unfortunately it needs to be talked about. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that this strand of flu is the worst and most widespread researchers have seen in the U.S. in years, affecting almost all 50 states. Because it’s been so widespread, doctor’s offices are running out of the flu test fast. Where can you get the flu test if your doctor is out? Is there anywhere else you can be tested if you start to have a scratchy throat and cough?
According to Dr. David Cutler, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, you might be able to get a flu test at a Minute Clinic, like at Walgreens, but you won’t get a doctor. Cutler adds that he believes you need a doctor’s order to do the test, because the results can be ambiguous, so “...you need someone with experience to interpret test results appropriately,” he explains. As far as other places you can get them done, if your general practitioner's office is out, you may be out of luck. 11 Alive reported there is a shortage of not only the “rapid molecular assay test,” but also the “specialized lab tests, which are done in hospitals or public health labs.”
Though you may have luck getting a test done in a public health lab via blood draw, Cutler says even though they have greater accuracy, they take days to get the results. “By then, you’ll probably be better whether you have the flu or not,” he adds.
The 11 Alive article also noted that because of the shortage, many doctors aren’t even testing, but just simply treating folks if they’re showing the signs and symptoms of the flu. A WSB article reported that the CDC even says that you don’t need a doctor to do a “laboratory confirmation of influenza to begin antiviral therapy. Antiviral treatment is recommended as early as possible for any patient with confirmed or suspected influenza who is hospitalized, has severe complicated or progressive illness or is at high risk of influenza complications."
And according to Cutler and both of the articles, the flu test isn’t without its flaws. “Like any medical test, the flu test is not a perfect test. What this means is that there will always be false positives (a positive test when you don’t have the flu) and false negatives (a normal test when you do have the flu),” Cutler explains. “Tests with many false negatives are said to have low sensitivity — they are not sensitive to finding the disease. Tests with many false positives are said to have low specificity — a positive result is not specific to the influenza illness.” Cutler adds that “sensitivities” are between 50 and 70 percent, and “specificities” are between 90 and 95 percent.
But even if your doctor is out of the flu test, Cutler says that most physicians don’t even use it since it’s so unreliable. And thankfully, if you’re showing flu symptoms, most doctors will go ahead and just treat you for the flu to be safe. Differences in symptoms between the cold and the flu, according to Cutler, are not always easy to decipher, unfortunately. However, “in general, colds have more runny nose, sore throat, and stuffy head [for symptoms]. Flu tends to have higher fever, body aches, and cough. If you have these symptoms, and aren’t sure what to do, call your doctor’s office for instructions,” he says.
If you think you may have the flu — or even a cold — it never hurts to get checked out by a doctor, whether they have a flu test available or not. Your physician should be able to figure out whether you have a cold or the flu by their examination, and will treat you for the flu if they suspect you may have it, even without testing it first — this strand of flu is that bad. Good luck and get vaccinated if you haven’t already, because even though it’s been reported to only be between 10 and 30 percent effective, it still lessens the blow of the flu and helps you get over it faster if you do catch it.
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