Influenza, commonly known as the flu is a viral infection that affects the respiratory system.
Many of us can get infected with influenza in the full season and some believe that it gets cured on its own.
However, it can get also get serious.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention CDC states that 22,000 people lost their lives to influenza in the United States from 2019 to 2020 only.
Types of Influenza
There are three types of Influenza virus A, B and C. Influenza A and B are seasonal and can cause small scale outbreaks every winter season.
Whereas Influenza C is mild and does not cause any big harm to the respiratory system.
Type A Influenza is more common than type even if both are equally dangerous. Type B virus mutates slowly and their genetic makeup changes slowly too.
Therefore, there are fewer chances of an outbreak by Influenza Type B virus.
Whereas Type A Influenza virus mutates faster and has strains and subtypes. Moreover, humans are natural hosts for Type B whereas birds are natural hosts for Type A Influenza virus.
All these factors combine to make Influenza A more contagious and it could infect humans in a way that can cause a pandemic.
Causes of Influenza
Influenza infection spreads mainly through air droplets. The droplets are transferred to surfaces or can be inhaled when someone talks, is coughing or sneezing.
You can pick them from surfaces by using the same hand to touch your eyes, mouth or nose.
People are contagious from one day before they experience to five days after they have started.
People with weak immune systems like the elderly or children are more susceptible to catch and spread the virus. They may also remain contagious longer.
Symptoms of Influenza
Flu is often confused with the cold. However, their symptoms can be different.
- The cold happens gradually while flu appears suddenly.
- Fever comes along with the flu but not with the cold.
- Flu leads to severe body aches and headaches. These are mild in the cold.
- Sore throat and sneezing and more common in the cold.
- The flu can get serious and develop complications like pneumonia. The cold really gets serious.
Common flu virus symptoms are
- fever over 100 degrees Fahrenheit
- runny nose
- body aches, headaches and eye pain
- dry cough and sore throat
- weakness and fatigue
Most of these symptoms may come to pass between one to two weeks after contracting the flu. However, tiredness will shed off after a few weeks.
These symptoms do not possess any bigger complications. That is why many people don’t need to visit a doctor.
However, you should see your doctor as soon as possible if the symptoms get serious. They may be indicating complications like pneumonia.
Severe symptoms in older adults are dizziness, shortness of breath, seizures and muscle pain.
For young children symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting is not considered severe. Difficulty breathing, blue lips, dehydration and extreme muscle pain indicate severity.
Any risk should not be taken with children and they should be immediately taken to a hospital if these symptoms persist.
As these symptoms could also indicate something more serious like bird flu or coronavirus.
The influenza virus affects everyone differently.
Some people are clearly more at risk than others and can even get severe flu.
Children and the elderly are more susceptible to catching the flu.
Children from 6 months to 5 years and adults above 65 should be more careful when the season changes.
Having chronic health conditions like respiratory system diseases and heart disease can increase the risk of complications in flu.
Pregnant women can develop influenza complications, more probably later in their pregnancy term.
Women can also develop influenza complications two weeks after giving birth.
Your living conditions also determine if you are at a higher risk of flu. If you reside in a living facility with many people like nursing homes or in a bigger family, then you are more likely to catch the virus.
Flu complications are also tied to obesity. If your body mass index exceeds 40, then you are more likely to catch the flu.
Moreover, health issues like an organ transplant, the use of steroids and cancer treatment can weaken immunity.
This weak immune system is more susceptible to catching flu and even developing complications.
So what are these complications?
Complications usually don’t develop for young and healthy people. The flu is cured with a week or two.
However, if you resonate with one of the risk factors, then complications can arise.
These complications include serious health conditions like pneumonia, bronchitis, ear infections, cardiac problems and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
To avoid these complications, the flu should be diagnosed and treated timely.
Your doctor may first conduct a physical exam and ask about your signs and symptoms. Seasonal flu may not need further testing and you will be prescribed the appropriate treatment.
However, in some cases, your doctor may advise you to take a test.
The doctor will swab your nose and throat to identify Influenza RNA. This procedure, rapid molecular assay, gives results within 30 minutes, detecting the influenza virus RNA.
Mostly flu will be cured by taking good enough rest and having a regular fluid intake.
However, if complications arise, doctors may prescribe antiviral drugs.
These include; oseltamivir (Tamiflu), peramivir (Rapivab), baloxavir marboxil, or zanamivir (Relenza).
These drugs are neuraminidase inhibitors that slow the infection by decreasing the ability of the virus to spread from one cell to another.
Oseltamivir is taken orally and zanamivir is inhaled. The device used for zanamivir is like an asthma inhaler but zanamivir should not be taken by people with already existing respiratory health diseases like asthma or lung disease.
These medications may reduce the time of your illness and furthermore save you from developing any serious complications.
However, these medications do have side effects. They can lead to nausea and vomiting.
You can reduce these side effects by making sure you are taking these antiviral medications with food.
Over the counter medicines like ibuprofen and aspirin can assist in reducing fever and body aches. Cough syrups and drops can reduce congestion.
Though, a doctor should be consulted before giving over-the-counter drugs to children and the elderly.
High-risk individuals are recommended to get immediate treatment before the wait for the test results. This could help save their life in time.
Influenza A keeps mutating and some of the strains have already become resistant to anti-viral drugs amantadine and rimantadine (Flumadine).
These were previously administered to flu patients but are no longer effective against the circulating influenza strains.
You can save yourself from catching the flu this season by getting the flu vaccine. The flu shot can be administered to anyone above the age of 6 months.
The annual flu vaccine protects against three to four influenza viruses in that season. The influenza vaccine can be in the form of an injection or nasal spray.
However, pregnant women, children with asthma and people with weak immunity are not recommended to take the nasal vaccine. Therefore, injection is the preferred method.
The flu vaccine can greatly reduce the severity of the flu and the chance to contract it. It can also help prevent complications and serious illnesses arising from the flu. However, You can still contract the flu if you have taken the flu shot.
Why is that so?
It is possible to contract a virus strain that is different from those in the vaccine. The flu vaccine protects against three to four viruses but there can be a new strain that affects you. Therefore, if you contract flu even when you got the vaccine, it is not because the vaccine is ineffective but the strain is different.
So, ultimately you may have to rely on precautions and home remedies.
You can take certain precautions in the flu season to prevent contracting the flu. Wash your hands diligently and regularly to stop coming in contact with the influenza virus.
You can cover your mouth by wearing a mask and sneeze in your elbow so that you do not affect anyone else.
Avoid all large gatherings and crowds during the flu season especially if you are at a higher risk and with weaker immunity.
In case you are developing symptoms, try to stay at home for the next day and get treated accordingly.
Moreover, you can try home remedies like hot drinks to keep you hydrated and soothe the sore throat. Drink lots of water to prevent dehydration.
You should be taking plenty of rest during the flu. Rest can enable your immune system to fight the infection strongly.
The Flu caused by the Influenza virus is usually seasonal. It mostly does not result in any serious complications and can be cured with rest and over the counter medication.
However, it is always better to consult a doctor than self-diagnosing and treating. You should especially avoid giving any medicines to children without the doctor’s consent.
If your condition gets serious then rush to the hospital and get yourself tested before further complications develop.
If you want to stop getting the flu every season, the flu vaccine is pretty effective in keeping the influenza virus at bay and protecting you.
But as much as it is important to protect yourself, you also have to protect others from this contagion.
If you contract the flu then stay indoors, wash your hands regularly and rest for a while to protect yourself as well as your community.