s the school year starts, our kids are exposed to more germs. As temperatures turn cooler, we stay indoors more. These two factors contribute to the start of cold and flu season. We are already seeing ads at the grocery store and at the pharmacy for the flu shot. Doctors continue to recommend the annual vaccination, whether in shot or nasal mist form, as the best defense against contracting influenza. Often confusion exists about the flu virus. People confuse in-fluenza, which affects the respiratory tract, with the “stomach flu,” with affects the gastrointestinal system and is not pre-vented by the vaccine. People may wonder if the flu is a serious illness that warrants vaccination. A review of influenza—its symptoms, causes, risk factors, complications, treatment and prevention—will hopefully clear up this confusion and keep you healthier this flu season.
Influenza is a viral infection that attacks your respiratory system—your nose, throat and lungs. Influenza, commonly called the flu, is not the same as the stomach “flu” viruses that cause diarrhea and vomiting. Influenza and its complications can be deadly. People at higher risk of developing flu complications include:
- Young children
- Older adults
- Pregnant women
- Health care workers
- Child care personnel
- People with weakened immune systems
- People who have chronic illnesses
- Individuals living in long-term care facilities
If you have flu symptoms and are at risk of complications, see your doctor right away. Taking antiviral drugs within the first 48 hours after you first notice symptoms may reduce the length of your illness and help prevent more-serious problems.
Flu viruses travel through the air in droplets when someone with the infection coughs, sneezes or talks. You can inhale the droplets directly, or you can pick up the germs from an object—such as a telephone or computer keyboard—and then transfer them to your eyes, nose or mouth.
Influenza viruses are constantly changing, with new strains appearing regularly. If you’ve had influenza in the past, your body has already made antibodies to fight that particular strain of the virus. If future influenza viruses are similar to what you had before, either by having the disease or by vaccination, those antibodies may prevent infection or lessen its severity.
But antibodies against flu viruses you’ve encountered in the past can’t protect you from new influenza subtypes that are very different immunologically from what you had before. Four such different (novel) virus subtypes have appeared in humans since the global epidemic (pandemic) of 1918, which killed tens of millions of people.
If you’re young and healthy, seasonal influenza usually isn’t serious. Although you may feel miserable while you have it, the flu usually goes away with no lasting effects. But high-risk children and adults may develop complications such as:
Usually, you’ll need nothing more than bed rest and plenty of fluids to treat the flu. But in some cases, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication, such as os-eltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza). If taken soon after you notice symptoms, these drugs may shorten your illness by a day or so and help prevent serious complications.
Oseltamivir is an oral medication. Zanamivir is in-haled through a device similar to an asthma inhaler and shouldn’t be used by anyone with respiratory problems, such as asthma and lung disease. Antiviral side effects may include nausea and vomiting. Oseltamivir has also been associated with delirium and self-harm behaviors in teenagers.
Some strains of influenza have become resistant to oseltamivir and to amantadine, which is an older anti-viral drug.
If you do come down with the flu, these measures may ease your symptoms: drink plenty of liquids, rest, and consider pain relievers such as over-the-counter ibu-profen or tylenol. Don’t give aspirin to children or teens.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends annual flu vaccination for all Americans over the age of 6 months.
Each year’s seasonal flu vaccine contains protection from the three influenza viruses that are expected to be the most common during that year’s flu season. The vaccine is typically available as an injection or as a nasal spray.
Controlling the spread of infection. The influenza vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective, so it’s also important to take measures to reduce the spread of infection:
Wash your hands. Thorough and frequent hand-washing is the best way to prevent many common infections. Scrub your hands vigorously for at least 15 seconds or use alcohol-based hand sanitizers if soap and water aren’t readily available.
Contain your coughs and sneezes. Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough. To avoid contaminating your hands, cough or sneeze into a tissue or into the inner crook of your elbow.
Avoid crowds. Flu spreads easily wherever people con-gregate—in child care centers, schools, office buildings, auditoriums and public transportation. By avoiding crowds during peak flu season, you reduce your chances of infection.
Source: Reprinted from the MayoClinic.com article “Influenza (flu)” (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/influenza/DS00081) © Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. All rights reserved.