Influenze, or Flu, is a serious respiratory illness. It is easily spread from person to person and can lead to severe complications, even death. We ALL are at risk for getting and spreading the flu. Having the flu may keep you home from work or school. If you have asthma or other lung diseases, you are at higher risk of developing complications from the flu.
Each year in the United States, influenza and its related complications result in an estimated 226,000 hospitalizations and anywhere from around 3,000 to 49,000 deaths. Health officials recommend that everyone six months of age and older receive an influenza vaccination each and every year. Most likely, this includes you and your entire family. We encourage you to speak with your healthcare provider to learn more about influenza and annual vaccination.
What causes influenza?
Influenza (flu), also referred to as seasonal flu, is a highly contagious illness caused by the influenza virus. Anyone can get the flu as it is spread easily from person to person, usually when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The virus my belong to one of three different influenza families: A, B or C.
Influenza type A viruses can infect people, as well as birds, pigs, horses and other animals. Influenza A viruses can be further broken down into different strains. There are two sub-types of influenza A viruses found in and circulating among humans: regular H1N1 and H3N2. These two sub-types are included in the seasonal flu vaccine each year.
Influenza type B viruses are usually found only in humans. Influenza B viruses can cause illness among humans, but in general are associated with less severe contagious disease than influenza A viruses.
Influenza type c viruses cause mild illness in humans. Influenza C cases occur much less frequently than A and B and are not typically included in the seasonal flu vaccine.
In addition to seasonal flu, there are two other flu viruses receiving extra attention around the globe today.
- Novel 2009 H1N1 Influenza Virus – this new flu virus, also known as swine flu, is a sub-type of influenza A. It has been spreading quickly around the world. It causes illness similar to seasonal flu.
Avian Flu (H5N1) – Avian influenza, or bird flu, is also a sub-type of influenza Type A viruses. While highly contagious in birds, it does not usually infect humans. Several cases of human infection with bird flu viruses have occurred since 1997, primarily in Asia, parts of Europe, the Near East and Africa. The death rate for these reported cases has been greater than 50%. The virus is mainly transmitted to humans by direct contact with infected live, sick or dead poultry. However, it is thought that a few cases of human-to-human spread have occurred.
Are you at risk for getting the flu?
Each year 36,000 Americans die from flu and its complications. For healthy children and adults, influenza is typically a moderately severe illness. Most people are back on their feet within a week. Certain groups of people are more susceptible to complications related to the flu and are considered “high risk”. These groups include the elderly, very young children and people with chronic illnesses or compromised immune systems. For people who are not healthy to begin with, influenza can be very severe and even fatal. If you are considered “high risk” you should do everything you can to prevent the flu.
What should I do if I get the flu?
Anyone concerned about their illness should consult a health care provider. The best thing to do is stay home and avoid contact with other people except to get medical care. If you are considered high risk, it is important to contact your health care provider right away. People at high risk are more likely to suffer from severe complications from the influenza virus. Pneumonia is the most common serious complication of influenza.
What are the symptoms of influenza?
Influenza is a respiratory infection with symptoms that can affect the entire body. Symptoms include:
- Sudden onset of high fever
- Headache, muscle aches and joint pain
- Cough (usually dry)
- Sore throat
- Nasal congestion and runny nose
How is influenza diagnosed?
It is hard to know for sure you have the flue on the basis of symptoms alone. A doctor’s office exam may be needed to tell whether you have developed the flu or a complication of the flu. There are tests that can determine if you have the flu as long as you are tested within the first 2 or 3 days of illness.
How is influenza treated?
At this time, two antiviral drugs are available: oseltamivir (trade name Tamiflu®), which comes in pill form and zanamivir (trade name Relenza®), which is a powder that comes in an inhaler. These two drugs, one inhaled and one in pill form, have been shown to reduce flu symptoms if started within a day or two of getting sick.
Anti-viral medicine is recommended for people with more severe illness, especially those who require hospitalization. Treatment with anti-viral medicine is most important for people with suspected or confirmed influenza who are at higher risk for complications, including:
- Children younger than 2 years old
- Adults 65 and older
- Pregnant women
- People with certain chronic medical conditions, such as asthma or COPD, or with suppressed immune systems.
It is important to note that people with chronic lung disease, including asthma, should not use the inhaled powder Relenza, because it sometimes worsens breathing problems.
If you are concerned about getting the flu or you are at high risk, there are steps you can take to protect yourself.
Get a flu vaccine each year
The best way to prevent the influenza is to get a flu vaccine every year. The influenza virus is constantly changing. Each year, scientists work together to identify the virus strains that they believe will cause the most illness, and a new vaccine is made based on their recommendations.
The best time to get a flu vaccine is soon after it becomes available in the fall of each year. Anyone who wants to reduce their chances of getting sick with the flu or of spreading it to others can get vaccinated. Health experts especially recommend that the following people get the seasonal vaccine each year:
- Children aged 6 months up the their 19th birthday
- Pregnant women
- People 50 years of age and older
- People of any age with certain medical conditions, including chronic lung disease
- People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
- People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu, including health care workers, household contacts of persons at high risk for complications from the flu, and caregivers of children less than 6 months of age who are too young to be vaccinated.
There are two vaccine options available in the United States.
The flu shot – The viruses in the flu shot are inactivated, which means that someone receiving the vaccine cannot get influenza from the flu shot. The exposure to the inactivated influenza virus helps our bodies develop protection by producing antibodies. The amount of antibodies in the body is greatest one to two months after vaccination and then gradually decline. After receiving the flu shot it usually takes about two weeks for the body to develop immunity to influenza.
Three important things to know about the flu shot:
- The American Lung Association study showed that the flu shot is safe for people with asthma.
- The flu shot is covered by Medicare and other health insurance.
- Most people experience little or no reaction to the flu shot. The most common side effect is a swollen, red, tender area where the vaccination is given.
FluMist – FluMist is a nasal spray approved to protect people from getting the flu. The nasal spray is made from live but weakened virus strains. FluMist is only approved by the FDA for healthy people ages 2 – 49. It has NOT BEEN proven safe for high risk populations. High risk groups, such as people with asthma or COPD, should receive a flu shot.
Practice good health habits
- Wash your hands often. The most common way to catch the flu is to touch your own eyes, nose or mouth with germy hands. So keep your hands clean, and away from your face. Wash hands with soap and warm water for 30 seconds, or about the amount of time it takes you to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.
- Keep your distance when you are sick or if you are around someone else who is sick.
- Keep it to yourself. One gift you can give others is to help prevent other people from catching your flu. We highly recommend that you STAY HOME from work, school and public places when you are sick. COVER YOUR MOUTH AND NOSE with a tissue or your elbow when coughing or sneezing, but never your hand. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.
Remember, getting an influenza vaccine is the best way to protect yourself from the flu. The shot only takes about two weeks to take effect so it can be effective even if the season has started in your area, and as late in the year as March.