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HomeHealth A-Z Influenza
Influenza
Influenza Shot
A flu shot is usually between 70 and 90% effective in preventing the flu in healthy adults.

Influenza

(in-flew-EN-za)

Definition of Influenza

Influenza is a contagious disease that is caused by a virus which attacks the respiratory tract in humans. It is characterized by headaches, muscle aches, fever, weakness, and cough.

Description of Influenza

Everyone has heard of the flu, but few people know the details about this virus. Learning more helps educate those on the cause and the cure for this common winter ailment.

Influenza, commonly referred to as the flu, is a viral infection that has no cure. The throat, nose, lungs, bronchial tubes, basically the entire respiratory system is attacked by the flu. The flu can affect anybody but those who are at highest risk of contracting the flu include seniors, children, and anybody whose immune system is vulnerable. A flu shot is the best way to avoid getting the flu or at least reduce its strength if it is contracted.

Causes and Risk Factors of Influenza

When someone who has the flu talks, coughs, or sneezes then tiny viruses travel through droplets in the air. Individuals will be affected by touching an object these droplets fall on like a doorknob and then transferring the germs to their eyes, mouth, or nose. Also, the flu may be inhaled through the air. Catching the flu is really easy when you are around an infected person.

There are three types of flu viruses called A, B, and C. Types A and B are the most common so far as the strains that appear each winter and were also responsible for some major flu outbreaks in the past. Strain C is not very common at all and the symptoms are much milder.

The different flu strains are not the same each year and the change all the time. So, just because you had the flu last year does not mean you won’t contract it this year just because you have antibodies. The reason is because of the ever changing strains.

Those most at risk for the flu include those over 65 and little kids as well as individuals who work with children or in health care, live in a rest home, have a weakened immune system, those in the final trimesters of pregnancy, or those with chronic disorders like asthma, diabetes, or lung disease. Children with these disorders are especially at risk for contracting the flu.

Symptoms of Influenza

Determining flu symptoms at the onset is difficult because sometimes it is just a sore throat with sneezing and a runny nose. So, some individuals believe it is just a cold. However, the flu happens very quickly so those aware of this might be able to tell they are getting the flu rather than a cold. Additionally, the flu makes you feel awful whereas a cold usually doesn’t. Other common flu symptoms include a dry cough, headache, chills, 101 degree fever or higher, sweats, loss of appetite, fatigue, muscle pain, congestion, weakness, and other symptoms. Children may have a fever as high as 105 degrees accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea.

Diagnosis of Influenza

The flu is most often diagnosed through a visit to the doctor. Presenting with flu symptoms is generally enough to be diagnosed with the flu. A high fever, dehydration, and other flu symptoms will clue the doctor in to the cause.

Treatment of Influenza

Most of the time doctors prescribe fluids and rest and in a few days the flu will pass on its own. However, there are a couple of antiviral medications like Tamiflu or Relenza that have shown positive effects in those suffering from the flu.

These antiviral medications are useful for the two most common types of the flu. They work because they do not allow the enzyme the flu virus feeds on to work properly. As a result the virus cannot spread. The benefit of these medications is that they can reduce the severeness of the flu and even decrease the amount of days it lasts as long as it is taken as soon as symptoms appear.

The downside to these antiviral medications is that they may cause trouble breathing, loss of appetite, nausea, and more. Additionally, they may result in viruses developing that are resistant to the antiviral medications.

Influenza Prevention

The flu is contagious and easy to catch, however there are many ways to prevent it, too. The first method of prevention is to always get a flu shot. Keep in mind that the flu shot is not 100% effective although it is usually between 70 and 90% effective in healthy adults. Its effectiveness in the elderly and in children is usually less, although it still serves as a barrier between getting the flu and the severity of its symptoms if the flu is contracted. The flu usually hits hardest during the months of December through March, so a flu shot in October or November is recommended to help build antibodies.

Getting plenty of rest is also important to help keep your immune system strong. Those who don’t get enough sleep and don’t eat right are at risk of a lowered immune system. When your immune system is low then contracting the flu is pretty much a given if you come in contact with the virus. Those who sleep at least eight hours at night and eat a diet of vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, and the like will keep their immune system healthy and help fight the flu.

Always washing your hands is also a good way to help prevent the flu. Washing with soap and water is effective if you wash for at least 15 seconds. Otherwise you will still be leaving germs on your hands. Another option is to wash your hands with an antibacterial gel with at least 60% alcohol to kill the germs.

Avoiding large crowds during a flu outbreak is another great way to prevent the flu. Since the flu is so contagious and travels easily through the air avoiding places with lots of potential flu carrying people is a good idea.

Regular exercise is yet another way to keep your immune system strong and ready to fight the flu. Even if you get the flu and are a regular exerciser you will probably have fewer symptoms and recover faster so it is worth working out!

External Resources

KidsHealth

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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