Each year, the flu is responsible for more than 200,000 hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths. Caused by the influenza virus, the flu spreads easily and attacks the respiratory system. In most cases, the flu is mild, causing a fever, aches and fatigue, but it can also lead to serious complications, including pneumonia and death.
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How The Flu Develops
When a person infected with the flu coughs or sneezes, droplets containing the flu virus are released into the air. The flu spreads when a person inhales these droplets. The droplets can also land on surfaces and infect people who touch the surface and then their eyes, nose or mouth. Once inside the body, the flu virus attaches to cells in the airways, sinuses and lungs and replicates, leading to a larger infection.
Symptoms Of The Flu
Often, symptoms of the flu are mistaken for those of the common cold. But, unlike a cold, the flu typically causes a fever ranging from 101 degrees to 106 degrees, which can last from a day to about a week. The symptoms of the flu are more severe than those of a cold and can include:
- Chills & Sweats
- Dry Or “Hacking” Cough
- Sore Throat
- Muscle Aches & Pains
- Fatigue & Weakness
- Loss Of Appetite
Children with the flu tend to develop higher fevers than adults and may also experience nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. In adults, however, the flu typically does not affect the gastrointestinal tract, and thus tends not to cause these symptoms. In children, croup and ear infections may also occur.
The flu can cause serious complications, such as pneumonia or bronchitis. Some people may experience more severe flu symptoms and should see a doctor immediately. These symptoms include:
- Shortness Of Breath
- Frequent Vomiting
In children under the age of 2, if the following symptoms occur, a doctor should be contacted immediately:
- Rapid Breathing
- Unusual Eating & Drinking
- High Fever Or Rash
- Bluish Tint To The Skin & Lips
Risk Factors For The Flu
Although everyone is at risk for the flu, the following groups have an increased risk and should be especially vigilant during flu season:
- Adults Over 50 Years Old
- Pregnant Women
- Anyone With A Chronic Condition
- Children 6 Months To 19 Years Old
- People In Nursing Homes
- People Living With The Above Groups
Certain groups of people are more likely to develop complications of having the flu. These include:
- Children Under 5 Years Old
- Adults Over 65 Years Old
- Pregnant Women
- People With Chronic Medical Conditions
- People Living In Nursing Homes
- People Living With The Above Groups
Preventing The Flu
Flu season generally runs from November to March, peaking in January and February. The flu spreads easily, but the following steps are effective in preventing the flu:
- The Flu Vaccine: The flu vaccine is the first line of defense against the flu and is available as a shot or nasal spray. It is usually available in October or early November and takes six to eight weeks to take effect. A new vaccine is made each year to match that year’s expected flu strains. When the vaccine and virus are well matched, it can reduce infection by 70 to 90 percent in healthy adults, but it is not a guarantee against infection. The vaccine contains inactive flu viruses and stimulates an immune reaction in the body. When a person is then exposed to the flu, his or her body will recognize the infection and immediately begin to fight it.
- Who Should Get The Flu Vaccine?: The Center for Disease Control now recommends that everyone over 6 months of age get vaccinated, unless it is contraindicated (meaning there are medical reasons not to get it). Some individuals should not get the flu vaccine, for example because of egg allergy or previous bad reactions, so it is important to check with a doctor or other appropriate health care professional before getting it.
- Side Effects Of The Flu Vaccine: The flu shot can cause side effects including soreness at the injection site, tiredness, slight fever and sore muscles, runny nose and headache. For the nasal flu vaccine, in children, side effects can include runny nose, headache, wheezing, vomiting, muscle aches, and fever. In adults, side effects can include runny nose, headache, sore throat, and cough. Fever is not a common side effect in adults receiving the nasal-spray flu vaccine.
- Antiviral Medications: Antiviral medication may be prescribed to people who live with, or have contact with, an individual who has the flu. There are four drugs in this class and which one is used depends on several factors, including the virus sensitivity to the specific drugs, the age of the patient, and other health conditions that the patient may have. For individuals who have not been vaccinated, a doctor may recommend the flu shot or nasal spray in addition to drug therapy.
- Good Hygiene: Practicing good hygiene is an important part of staying healthy during flu season. People should wash their hands often, or use a hand sanitizer, and keep surfaces clean. As viruses can enter the body through the eyes, nose and mouth, people should avoid touching those areas. Other steps include avoiding people with the flu and using a tissue to cough or sneeze and then discarding it immediately.
Treating The Flu
Once infected with the flu, adults are contagious for up to seven days after symptoms begin. Children can be infectious for 10 to 14 days. It is important to rest at home during this time and drink plenty of fluids.
Although there is no cure for the flu, over-the-counter medications can help to alleviate its symptoms. These medicines include:
- Decongestants: These relieve congestion and sinus headaches.
- Pain relievers: Pain relievers including ibuprofen, acetaminophen and aspirin help reduce fevers. Aspirin should never be given to children and teenagers with the flu as it can cause Reye’s syndrome, a rare but serious condition.
- Antiviral medications: People with severe flu symptoms or those in a high-risk group may be prescribed antiviral medications. The four antiviral flu drugs are Oseltamivir (which can be used to treat adults and children older than 1), Zanamivir (which can be used to treat adults and children older than 7), Amantadine (which can be used to treat people older than 1) and Rimantadine (which can be used to treat people older than 13). These medicines work best when they are taken within two days of the first flu symptoms and need to be taken for five days. The choice of antiviral drug depends on many factors, including the sensitivity to the specific drugs, age and other conditions such as kidney or liver failure.
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This information is not meant as medical advice.
Always consult your doctor about your specific health condition.