Influenza — more commonly known as the flu — is one of the most common respiratory viruses in the world. It is commonly referred to as seasonal influenza because the most common strains of the virus are more prevalent during the colder months in each hemisphere around the world. In fact, many countries have historically charted the annual occurrence of the virus and declared that time of year “flu season.”
The flu is capable of producing mild to severe symptoms that may include fever, sore throat, muscle and body ache, and more. In some cases, the symptoms can be so severe they can lead to the death of the patient.
The purpose of this article is to provide a lucid understanding of the basics associated with this virus so that you can protect yourself from it, or in a case in which you contract viruses, be prepared to successfully manage it.
Table of Contents
Recognize the Symptoms
Seasonal influenza has systems that are highly characteristic and when occurring in conjunction with one another, are highly indicative of the presence of the virus. Although these symptoms are not exclusive to the flu, when most of them are present at one given time, it normally indicates the presence of the flu or some viral infection that mimics the flu.
The primary symptoms of the flu are:
- The presence of a fever and often chills
- Sore throat
- Runny and/or stuffy nose
- Mild to severe headache
- Extreme fatigue
- Muscle, joint and body aches
- In extreme cases, people can experience nausea and vomiting, especially in the case of children.
Once you have contracted the flu, the key is to treat the symptoms while allowing the virus to run its course.
Understanding How the Flu Spreads
According to the majority of experts, the flu virus is spread through small droplets when people who are infected with the flu sneeze, talk or cough. When these droplets are expelled from the infected individual, they may land on the nose, eyes or lips of people who are within close proximity. Although it is extremely uncommon, it is believed that a person may contract the flu virus through touching an affected area such as flat surfaces and then touching their mouth, eyes or their nose.
Period of Contagiousness
The period of contagiousness for the flu is much more expansive than the period that the physical symptoms are apparent. It is possible to be able to infect another human being with the flu virus as early as 24 hours prior to any symptoms developing and as many as five to seven days after the first symptoms appear. There are times when the period of contagiousness can extend even longer for individuals with weakened immune systems.
The Severity of the Flu
Because seasonal influenza has become such a common part of the social culture, it is often underestimated in terms of severity. The virus is highly unpredictable from season to season, meaning that there will be seasons in which the strains that are prevalent are extremely mild, and then there are those seasons when extremely aggressive strains are spreading and the number of flu patients that must be admitted to the hospital increases and so does the amount of flu-related deaths.
Some of the variables that influence the severity of the flu from season to season are:
- The availability of flu vaccines
- How soon the vaccines are made available to the public
- The type of flu that is being spread
- The number of people who get vaccinated
- The proper matching of the vaccine with the actual strain that is prevalent
There are certain groups that are at a much higher risk of developing serious complications if they contract the flu. These groups include young children, pregnant women, the elderly as well as people with certain existing health conditions such as heart disease, asthma, or diabetes. In addition, people who reside in nursing homes are at a much greater risk of becoming seriously ill from the flu.
Common complications that exacerbate the presence of the flu include ear infections, dehydration, pneumonia, sinus infections, and chronic medical conditions that are worsened due to the presence of the virus.
Seasonal Influenza Prevention
The consensus among medical experts is that the single most effective way to protect against becoming infected by the flu virus is to be vaccinated at the beginning of each season. Each year there are a number of vaccine options, depending on the various strains that may be considered a common threat.
One of the most common vaccines is a trivalent vaccine, which is highly effective in protecting against two different influenza type A virus strains and one influenza type B strain. The quadrivalent vaccine protects against two separate virus strains for both types.
Most annual vaccinations will begin as soon as the vaccines are made available, which is normally around October. Even those who are vaccinated after this period will be less likely to contract the virus.
There are still a significant number of people who refused to get vaccinated. Because the vaccines are created from the actual virus, some people find it difficult to reconcile injecting the very thing they are attempting to avoid into their bodies. The truth is that the vaccine forces the human body to build up immunity to the virus.
Those who are at a much higher risk of contracting the flu should seriously consider getting vaccinated. Although it does happen, the chances of getting sick from the vaccination are very low. If you fall into one of the high-risk categories listed above or you live with someone who is considered high risk, you should get vaccinated at the first opportunity.
Historically, the common approach to treating the flu was to manage the symptoms, which is still the most common course of action. Now there are some antiviral drugs that may be prescribed to help shorten the duration of the viral process, which means that you may be up and going a lot sooner than normal. This does not mean that you will not have to manage the symptoms in the interim. It is extremely important to manage fever and possible dehydration as both can lead to life-threatening complications.