What is it
Influenza, more commonly known as flu, is a viral infection of the nose, throat, and lungs that infects one in four Americans each winter. Although flu is considered a respiratory ailment, it affects the whole body, with symptoms ranging from sore throat and dry cough to fever, body aches, and burning eyes. The accompanying fever rises quickly, often to 103°F or higher, and stays there for several days. Even after the fever has subsided, physical exhaustion may last for days afterward.
Flu viruses are highly contagious and they also mutate frequently, so that new variations, or strains, can emerge or spread to a new location every year. Epidemics occur about every four years, and about every decade a flu virus strain appears that is so different from others that a pandemic a worldwide epidemic soon follows. Flu viruses are often given names based on their place of assumed origin, for example, the Beijing flu.
It’s virtually impossible to tell the difference between a mild flu and a cold. It’s likely that you have the flu if you come down with symptoms at the same time that a flu epidemic is present in your community. Having the flu once does not confer lasting immunity as it does with some childhood viral diseases. The antibodies produced in response to one flu virus don’t provide immunity to a different flu virus that may occur the next year.
Most outbreaks of flu in the United States occur between October and May, with the peak months falling between late December and early March. (In the Southern Hemisphere, flu sea- son occurs from April to September though in some tropical areas it lasts all year.)
Most of the millions of Americans who contract flu each year may feel extremely uncomfortable while they have it, but they recover within 10 days or so without further problems. However, the virus can lead to further, sometimes serious, complications, including bronchitis. If the flu spreads from the upper respiratory tract and bronchi to the lungs, secondary bacterial pneumonia can develop. Those at greatest risk for these problems which can sometimes cause a bout of the flu to be fatal are the elderly, pregnant women, cancer patients, people with heart disease or respiratory illness, and those with compromised immune systems.
Within 72 hours of exposure to a flu virus, the following symptoms develop:
- Rapid onset of moderate to high fever, between 1 OTF and 1 03°F, that lasts for three to five days.
- Dry cough.
- Sore throat.
- Runny nose.
- Joint pain.
- Stuffy nose.
- Burning sensation in the eyes.
- Loss of appetite.
What causes it
You usually catch the flu by being in close proximity to an infected person, who expels droplets containing flu viruses during coughing or sneezing bouts. The droplets travel through the air and can be inhaled by others. You can also catch flu from direct contact touching hands or kissing with someone who is infectious, and the viruses can even live for hours in dried mucus that may have been left on objects touched by a flu-infected person’s unwashed hands.
What if you do nothing
Flu is a self-limiting ailment, generally not dangerous, and will normally clear by itself within 10 days or less though weakness and fatigue can persist for several weeks or longer. However, if you are in a high-risk group and develop flu, you should be aware of possible complications and consider contacting your physician.
Flu is a viral infection and antibiotics are ineffective against it. You can help lessen its symptoms at home with the following measures.
Stay in bed
Bed rest is important to help your body battle the flu, so stay there until your temperature returns to normal and you no longer have body aches and pains.
Drink plenty of fluids
Fluids prevent dehydration and keep the protective mucous lining of the respiratory system moist so it can fight off the virus. It doesn’t matter if the fluid is hot or cold as long as you drink at least eight glasses a day.
Be judicious in lowering your temperature
A fever of up to 102T acts as an antiviral agent, so don’t take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to lower your fever if it’s in this range. However, if your fever is 103T or higher, take two acetaminophen or ibuprofen even’ four hours. (Aspirin should not be taken by anyone younger than 19 because of its association with Reye’s syndrome, a rare but fast-progressing and often fatal childhood disorder that can be triggered by aspirin.)
Use a cough suppressant
A flu infection generally causes a dry, hacking cough, which is unproductive and does not speed recovery. In addition to causing a sore throat, coughing can spread the virus into the lungs. Choose an over- the-counter cough suppressant containing dextromethorphan. This medication is nonsedating and inhibits coughing by affecting the cough reflex in the brain. Any green, yellow, or blood-tinged mucus indicates a possible bacterial infection. Stop all cough suppressants and contact your physician.
Wash your hands frequently
This will help prevent spreading germs to others.
Get a flu vaccination in the fall
A vaccination is the number one method of flu prevention.
Avoid unnecessary contact with people who have the flu
The flu virus is highly communicable and can be transmitted by a kiss, grabbing a doorknob, or inhaling the virus from a sneeze or cough.