What is Influenza (also called Flu)?


By: Mwaura Mwangi

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccine each year.

For most people, influenza resolves on its own. But sometimes, influenza and its complications can be deadly. People at higher risk of developing flu complications include:

  • Young children under 5, and especially those under 2 years
  • Adults older than 65
  • Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
  • Pregnant women and women up to two weeks postpartum
  • People with weakened immune systems
  • People who have chronic illnesses, such as asthma, heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes
  • People who are very obese, with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher

Signs and Symptoms of Flu

People who have the flu often feel some or all of these signs and symptoms that usually start suddenly, not gradually:

  • Fever* or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (very tired)
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in young children than in adults.

*It’s important to note that not everyone with flu will have a fever.

How Flu Spreads

Most experts believe that flu viruses spread mainly by tiny droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.

Period of Contagiousness

You may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick. Although people with the flu are most contagious in the first 3-4 days after their illness begins,  some otherwise healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. Some people, especially young children and people with weakened immune systems, might be able to infect others with flu viruses for an even longer time.

Onset of Symptoms

The time from when a person is exposed to flu virus and infected to when symptoms begin is about 1 to 4 days, with an average of about 2 days.

Complications of Flu

Complications of flu can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.

Symptoms

Initially, the flu may seem like a common cold with a runny nose, sneezing and sore throat. But colds usually develop slowly, whereas the flu tends to come on suddenly. And although a cold can be a nuisance, you usually feel much worse with the flu.

Common signs and symptoms of the flu include:

  • Fever over 100.4 F (38 C)
  • Aching muscles, especially in your back, arms and legs
  • Chills and sweats
  • Headache
  • Dry, persistent cough
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sore throat

Prevention

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone over the age of 6 months.

Each year’s seasonal flu vaccine contains protection from the three or four influenza viruses that are expected to be the most common during that year’s flu season. The vaccine is currently available as an injection only. The CDC no longer recommends nasal spray flu vaccinations because during recent flu seasons, the spray has been relatively ineffective.

Controlling the spread of infection

The influenza vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective, so it’s also important to take measures such as these to reduce the spread of infection:

  • Wash your hands. Thorough and frequent hand-washing is an effective way to prevent many common infections. 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 congregate — in child care centers, schools, office buildings, auditoriums and public transportation. By avoiding crowds during peak flu season, you reduce your chances of infection. And, if you’re sick, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever subsides so that you lessen your chance of infecting others.
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