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Influenza (The Flu)

Influenza, commonly called "The Flu" is one of the most contagious airborne infectious diseases. It is caused by by a number of viruses that infect the respiratory tract, including your nose, throat, bronchial tubes and lungs. The viruses pass through the air and enter your body through your nose or mouth. Between 5% and 20% of people in the U.S. get the flu each year.

Cold or Flu?

The common cold and influenza are both contagious viral infections of the respiratory tract with similar symptoms. Stomach Flu, which causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, is completely different and is actually gastroenteritis. A common cold and influenza may begin with the same symptoms such as congestion, sore throat, sneezing & runny nose. However, there is rarely fever with the common cold and influenza symptoms are more severe. With influenza, you are likely to run a high fever for several days, your head and body will ache, and you will be extremely tired and weak. The symptoms of influenza usually begin suddenly, while symptoms of the common cold generally begin more gradually. Usually, complications from colds are relatively minor, but a severe case of influenza can lead to a life-threatening illness such as pneumonia.

Symptoms of Influenza

  • Fever (usually high - 101.5 or higher)
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Body aches (usually in the joints and muscles)
  • Generalized weakness
  • Runny nose
  • Dry cough
  • Chills

Causes of Influenza

The flu is caused by three types (strains) of viruses � influenza A, B and C. Type A is the strongest and is responsible for the deadly influenza pandemics (worldwide epidemics) that strike every 10 to 40 years. Type B usually causes smaller, more localized outbreaks that generally occur every three to 15 years. Type C is less common and causes only mild symptoms. The Flu Shot you get is designed to protect against types A and B. However, these 2 types of influenza are constantly changing and developing new strains. This is why you need to get a flu shot every year. There is no Flu Shot for type C since it is more rare and the symptoms are generally mild. Influenza is highly contagious and very easy to catch. When someone who is infected with the influenza virus, coughs, sneezes or talks, the virus travels through the air in tiny droplets that you can't even see. You can inhale the droplets directly, or you can pick up the germs from an object such as a telephone, doorknob, or computer keyboard and then transfer them to your eyes, nose or mouth. The flu virus can live for about an hour on objects. You can also get the flu from sharing cups, glasses, or other household objects used by a person who has the flu. A person who has contracted the flu virus is usually contagious a day before they even devlop symptoms.

Preventing The Flu

The best way to keep from getting the flu is to get a Flu Shot each year. In the U.S. and other countries in the northern hemisphere, the "Flu Season" generally runs from November to May. The best time to get a flu shot is October or November. * People who have an allergy to eggs should not receive the influenza vaccine. You can NOT get the flu from getting the flu shot. Anyone can get a flu shot but there are certain groups of people that are recommended to get a flu shot every year.
  • Children ages 6 months to 5 years
  • Caregivers of children less than 6 months of age
  • Pregnant woman
  • People age 50 or over
  • Health care workers
  • Those that live in nursing homes or other long term care facilities
  • People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions
  • Caregivers of persons at high risk for complications from the flu

These people are either at high risk from complications of the flu or the people they care for are at high risk of complications. There are other things that you can do to protect yourself from getting the flu. Frequent, regular, hand washing will help protect you from the flu as well as many other common illnesses. It's important to do it right though. Scrub your hands vigorously for at least 15 seconds (for young children - as long as it takes to say their ABC's), rinse well and turn off the faucet with a paper towel. You can also use an alcohol-based hand gel containing at least 60 percent alcohol. It is also important to keep your body and immune system healthy by eating right, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. Limit air travel and avoid crowds, whenever possible, during peak flu season, to reduce your chances of infection.

Complications of Influenza

Most people who get the flu recover completely in one to two weeks, but some people develop serious and potentially life-threatening medical complications. Pneumonia is the number one serious complication of influenza. It can develop about five days after viral influenza. It is uncommon and nearly always occurs in people at high risk (the elderly, people with chronic illnesses, people in long term care facilities, babies under 1 year of age). Children, especially under 1 year, and up to 5 years old are also at risk for other complications, including meningitis and encephalitis (inflammations in central nervous system).

Treatment for Influenza

The best treatment is rest and plenty of fluids. There is no cure for the flu. There are antiviral drugs that are used to treat the flu but they must be taken at the first sign of symptoms to be effective. These medications work by preventing the virus from multiplying and spreading. They will not cure you but may shorten the duration of your illness by a day or two. Treat fever and aches with over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin), and aspirin. * Never give aspirin to children under 16 years old because it is associated with Reye syndrome (a condition causing liver and brain damage) Congestion, cough and nasal discharge are best treated with a decongestant, antihistamine, or in combination. There are many over-the-counter flu remedies that contain both of these ingredients. Check with your doctor if you are taking medications on a regular basis, or if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, or any other chronic medical condition before taking any over-the-counter medications. Finally, stay home or keep your child home if they have the flu. You'll recover faster and you won't spread the virus.

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DISCLAIMER: The information on this website should NOT be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information provided here is for educational and informational purposes only. In no way should it be considered as offering medical advice. Please contact your doctor or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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