For most of us, the holiday season means good food, family gatherings and long-held traditions. Unfortunately, it also means the arrival of the influenza or "flu" season. It is very reliable, showing up in late fall, usually peaking over the winter then, waning as we move toward spring.
What is influenza or seasonal (common) flu?
Influenza is a respiratory illness with systemic symptoms, affecting at times the whole body. The flu is a virus that is spread by droplets that can infect people through the air, from coughing and sneezing, or through the hands of a sick person. The virus then lands in the lungs and causes infection.
Symptoms can begin quickly, and can be full-blown within a few days after exposure. They include fever, sore throat, severe headache, and overall body aches. Usually flu cases last five to seven days and patients recover without lasting effects. But there can be life-threatening effects if the infection becomes pneumonia or other more serious conditions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year more than 200,000 Americans are hospitalized with the flu, with 30,000 cases becoming fatal.
What I can do to prevent getting the flu?
The best way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated. Dec. 6-12 is National Influenza Vaccination Week, established by the CDC to highlight the importance of continuing flu vaccinations through the holiday season and beyond. www.cdc.gov/features/fighttheflu
Every year the flu virus changes from the previous year, so a vaccine is produced with three to four of the most likely strains expected for the current flu season. The vaccination works by introducing these strains to your body so it can build antibodies to fight the flu when you are exposed to it. There is no live flu virus in flu shots, so it cannot cause the flu.
After getting your flu shot, it can take two weeks to develop antibodies that fight the virus. The CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone six months and older. If the vaccine does not totally prevent the flu, it can substantially lessen its effects. The disadvantages of vaccination are minimal. There may be some side effects, such as soreness or redness at the injection site, slight muscle ache or low grade fever. But these are usually mild and short-lived. You should check with your doctor to see if there is any reason you should not get vaccinated.
Influenza and the common cold virus are both transmitted the same way. Here are some tips for avoiding these viruses and staying healthy.
- Wash your hands often to help protect from germs.
- Avoid touching your nose or mouth or eating with unwashed hands.
- Avoid contact with people that are sick.
- Stay home when you are sick, so you don?t make others sick.
- Cover your mouth and nose and cough or sneeze into your sleeve.
- Use disinfectants around your home that are effective against viruses.
What if I get the flu?
It is important to seek medical attention if you experience any of the following:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Sudden dizziness or confusion
- Severe persistent vomiting
- Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever or a worsened cough
If you are diagnosed with the flu, your doctor will most likely recommend "supportive therapy" which includes:
- Drinking more fluids
- Getting plenty of rest
- Using a cool vaporizer or saline nasal spray to relieve congestion
- Soothing your throat with crushed ice, sore throat spray or lozenges
There are two antiviral drugs called Tamiflu and Relenza that can be prescribed by your doctor to lessen the severity of the virus. It is important to remember that the flu is a virus. Antibiotics are ineffective against viruses and should not be used unless there are other symptoms associated with a bacterial infection. And always check with your doctor or pharmacist before trying any over-the-counter medications to treat flu symptoms.
The information provided within this site is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for consultation with your physician or healthcare provider.