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 Cold/Flu  Holistic-online.com

Flu - An Overview


Influenza, or flu, is a respiratory infection caused by a variety of flu viruses. It can "knock you off your feet."

The flu differs in several ways from the common cold, a respiratory infection also caused by viruses. For example, people with colds rarely get fevers or headaches or suffer from the extreme exhaustion that flu viruses cause. (see: Symptoms of Cold and Flu: How to Identify Cold or the Flu for more information.)

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 10 to 20 percent of Americans come down with the flu during each flu season, which typically lasts from November to March. Children are two to three times more likely than adults to get sick with the flu, and children frequently spread the virus to others. 

CDC estimates that in the United States more than 100,000 people are hospitalized and about 36,000 people die from the flu and its complications every year.

What is Influenza (Flu)?

Influenza, commonly called "the flu," is caused by the influenza virus, which infects the respiratory tract (nose, throat, lungs). Unlike many other viral respiratory infections, such as the common cold, the flu causes severe illness and life-threatening complications in many people.

What Are the Symptoms of Flu?

Influenza is a respiratory illness. If you get infected by the flu virus, you will usually feel symptoms 1 to 4 days later. You can spread the flu to others before your symptoms start and for another 3 to 4 days after your symptoms appear. The symptoms start very quickly and may include

  • Headache
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Chills
  • Dry cough
  • Body aches
  • Fever
  • Runny or Stuffy nose
  • Sore throat

Children can have additional gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, but these symptoms are uncommon in adults.

Typically, the fever begins to decline on the second or third day of the illness. The flu almost never causes symptoms in the stomach and intestines. The illness that some people often call "stomach flu" is not influenza.

When And Where Do People Usually Get The Flu?

Flu outbreaks usually begin suddenly and occur mainly in the late fall and winter. The disease spreads through communities creating an epidemic. During the epidemic, the number of cases peaks in about 3 weeks and subsides after another 3 or 4 weeks. Half of the population of a community may be affected. Because schools are an excellent place for flu viruses to attack and spread, families with school-age children have more infections than other families.

See Also: Scientists Find Hidden Piece of Influenza Virus

Is The Flu An Important Disease?

Flu can cause serious complications. Most people who get the flu get better within a week (although they may have a lingering cough and tire easily for a while longer). For elderly people, newborn babies, and people with certain chronic illnesses, however, the flu and its complications can be life-threatening.

See Also: Scientists Discover How Influenza Virus Becomes More Deadly

What Are Possible Complications From The Flu?

You can have flu complications if you get a bacterial infection, which can cause pneumonia in your weakened lungs. Pneumonia also can be caused by the flu virus itself.

Complications usually appear after you start feeling better. After a brief period of improvement, you may suddenly get symptoms.

Some of the complications caused by flu include:

  • Bacterial pneumonia
  • Dehydration
  • High fever
  • Shaking chills
  • Chest pain with each breath
  • Coughing that produces thick, yellow-greenish-colored mucus
  • Worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes

Children may get sinus problems and ear infections as complications from the flu. Those aged 65 years and older and persons of any age with chronic medical conditions are at highest risk for serious complications of flu.

Pneumonia can be a very serious and sometimes life-threatening condition. If you have any of these symptoms, you should contact your health care provider immediately so that you can get the appropriate treatment.

Are There Other Flu Complications That Affect Only Children?

Reye's syndrome, a condition that affects the nerves, sometimes develops in children and teenagers who are recovering from the flu. Reye's syndrome begins with nausea and vomiting, but the progressive mental changes (such as confusion or delirium) cause the greatest concern.

The syndrome often begins in young people after they take aspirin to get rid of fever or pain. Although very few children develop Reye's syndrome, you should consult a doctor before giving aspirin or products that contain aspirin to children. Acetaminophen does not seem to be associated with Reye's syndrome.

Other complications of the flu that affect children are

  • Convulsions caused by fever
  • Croup
  • Ear infections, such as otitis media

Newborn babies recently out of intensive care units are particularly vulnerable to suffering from flu complications.

Influenza and its complications are the 6th leading cause of death among children 4 years old and younger!

How to Diagnose the flu?

It is very difficult to distinguish the flu from other viral or bacterial causes of respiratory illnesses on the basis of symptoms alone. A test can confirm that an illness is influenza if the patient is tested within the first two to three days after symptoms begin. In addition, a doctor’s examination may be needed to determine whether a person has another infection that is a complication of influenza.

How Is The Flu Transmitted?

The flu is spread, or transmitted, when a person who has the flu coughs, sneezes, or speaks and sends flu virus into the air, and other people inhale the virus. The virus enters the nose, throat, or lungs of a person and begins to multiply, causing symptoms of influenza. 

Influenza may, less often, be spread when a person touches a surface that has flu viruses on it a door handle, for instance and then touches his or her nose or mouth.

You are at greatest risk of getting infected in highly populated areas, such as in crowded living conditions and in schools.

How long is a person with flu virus contagious?

The period when an infected person is contagious depends on the age of the person. Adults may be contagious from one day prior to becoming sick and for three to seven days after they first develop symptoms. Some children may be contagious for longer than a week.

Prevention: How Can I Keep From Getting The Flu?

Flu Vaccine

The main way to keep from getting flu is to get a yearly flu vaccine. You must get the vaccine every year because it changes.

Scientists make a different vaccine every year because the strains of flu viruses change from year to year. Nine to 10 months before the flu season begins, they prepare a new vaccine made from inactivated (killed) flu viruses. Because the viruses are killed, they cannot cause infections. The vaccine preparation is based on the strains of the flu viruses that are in circulation at the time. It includes those A and B viruses expected to circulate the following winter.

Sometimes, an unpredicted new strain may appear after the vaccine has been made and distributed to doctors and clinics. Because of this, even if you do get the flu vaccine, you still may get infected. If you do get infected, however, the disease usually is milder because the vaccine still will give you some protection.

Your immune system takes time to respond to the flu vaccine. Therefore, you should get vaccinated 6 to 8 weeks before flu season begins to prevent getting infected or reduce the severity of flu if you do get it. The vaccine itself cannot cause the flu, but you could become exposed to the virus by someone else and get infected soon after you are vaccinated.

See Also: Flu Vaccine Facts and Myths

Are there possible side effects from the flu vaccine?

The most common side effect in children and adults is soreness at the site of the vaccination. Other side effects include fever, tiredness, and sore muscles. These side effects may begin 6 to 12 hours after vaccination and may last for up to 2 days.

The flu vaccine may contain some egg protein, which can cause an allergic reaction in some people who are allergic to eggs.

Who are high risk of contracting Flu? Who should get Vaccination?

If you are in any of the following groups or live in a household with someone who is, CDC recommends that you get the flu vaccine.

  • Adults aged 50 or over-Even if you're in great health!
  • Infants aged 6 months to 23 months. Children younger than 2 years old have one of the highest rates of hospitalizations due to influenza
  • You have chronic diseases of your heart, lungs, or kidneys. These include: heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, asthma, cancer, HIV/AIDS
  • Your immune system does not function properly
  • You have a severe form of anemia
  • Children 6 months to 8 years old getting flu vaccine for the first time. These children will need a follow-up booster one month after the first dose of vaccine.
  • You will be more than 3 months pregnant during the flu season which is typically November-March.
  • You live in a nursing home or other chronic-care housing facility.
  • Health care workers
  • Household contacts or caregivers of adults or children at high risk. High risk includes adults 65 and older, infants under 24 months (babies less than 6 months can get influenza but are too young to get flu vaccine), anyone with chronic health problems, and pregnant women.

Some children are at high risk of having complications from the flu. 

Flu could make them very sick or even kill them. The following children need to be vaccinated each year to prevent the flu:

n Infants 6-23 months of age

n Children 24 months to 18 years of age with chronic health problems like

  • asthma or other problems of the lungs
  • immune suppression
  • chronic kidney disease
  • heart disease
  • diabetes
  • sickle cell anemia

n Children 6 months to 18 years of age who are receiving long-term aspirin therapy

The vaccine can be given to children as young as 6 months. Children and teenagers (aged 6 months to 18 years) should get the flu vaccine if they are taking long-term aspirin treatment as they may be at risk of developing Reye's syndrome following a flu infection (see section on complications in children). They should also get the flu vaccine if they live in a household with someone in the above groups.

Children under 6 months old can also get very sick from the flu. But they are too young to get flu vaccine. The best way to protect them is to make sure that you, their family members, and their caregivers are vaccinated.

Health care workers and volunteers should get the flu vaccine if they work with patients in any of the above groups.

Medicine for Prevention

Although the flu vaccine is the best way to prevent getting the flu, three antiviral medicines also are available by prescription that will help prevent flu infection.

  • Tamiflu (oseltamivir)
  • Flumadine (rimantadine)
  • Symmetrel (amantadine)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Tamiflu for use in adults and teenagers 13 years and older. Rimantadine and amantadine have been approved for use by adults and children who are 1 year of age and older.

Rimantadine and amantadine have unpleasant side effects. Your doctor can help you decide which medicine is best for you.

  • These medicines help prevent the flu if you take them for at least 2 weeks during the outbreak of flu in your community.

  • You may use these medicines if you are in close contact with family members or others who have the flu.

  • You may use them if you are in close contact with people who have been vaccinated but whom you want to give added protection from getting the flu.

  • You may use either medicine immediately following flu vaccination during a flu epidemic to protect you during the 2- to 4-week period before antibodies (proteins from your immune system that protect you from the flu virus) develop or when a flu epidemic is caused by virus strains other than those covered by the vaccine.

You should discuss the flu vaccine and medicines with your doctor before the flu season begins.

See Also: Flu Drugs

How Is Flu Treated?

Many people treat their flu infections by simply

  • Resting in bed
  • Drinking plenty of fluids
  • Taking over-the-counter medicine such as aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol, for example)

Do not give aspirin to children and adolescents who have the flu.

Do not take antibiotics to treat the flu because they do not work on viruses. Antibiotics only work against some infections caused by bacteria.

Medicine for Treatment

If you do get the flu and want to take medicine to treat it, your doctor may prescribe one of four available antiviral medicines.

  • Tamiflu (oseltamivir) helps adults 18 years and older and Relenza (zanamivir) helps adults and children 7 years and older who have an uncomplicated flu infection and who have had symptoms for no more than two days. FDA also has approved Tamiflu for use in children 1 year of age and older who have had symptoms for no more than 2 days. Both treat influenza type A and type B infections.

  • Flumadine (rimantadine) helps adults who have influenza type A virus infections. It has no effect on influenza type B virus infections.

  • Symmetrel (amantadine) can be taken by adults and children who are 1 year of age and older to prevent and treat type A influenza virus infections. Amantadine, however, is more likely to cause side effects such as lightheadedness and inability to sleep more often than is rimantadine.

To work well, you must take these medicines within 48 hours after the flu begins. They reduce the length or time fever and other symptoms last and allow you to return to your daily routine quicker.

See Also: Flu Drugs

Source: The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), USA

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