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How to Prevent the Flu

No one is immune to the flu, but there are things you can do to fend it off.   See more cold and flu pictures.
2006 Publications International, Ltd.

While ailments such as influenza and the common cold are usually not life-threatening, they can put a damper on your plans and make you feel like hiding under the covers. Furthermore, because these viruses are quite contagious, you'll want to do everything you can to avoid them.

The bird flu is another virus that has become a concern. Although this potentially deadly ailment has not reached the United States yet, it's important to know all the facts so that you can help prevent its spread.

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The following article covers the flu, the common cold, and the bird flu. Here's a preview:

  • Preventing the FluThere are three different types of influenza viruses that cause the flu: A, B, and C. In this section, you'll learn about each type. You'll also find out about the symptoms of the flu and what you can do to avoid catching the virus. Finally, we'll tell you about the benefits of getting a flu shot and what types of medications can be used to treat the infection. To arm yourself with the information you need to stave off the flu -- or to make it a little less debilitating if you get it -- you'll want to read this page.
  • Preventing the Common ColdDid you know there are more than 200 common cold viruses lingering out there for you to catch? While that may sound frightening and overwhelming, the good news is that you can use the same preventative measures to try to avoid all of them. The other good news is that once you have had a virus strain, you develop an immunity to that particular strain for the rest of your life. One down...199 to go! See this page for more handy tips on how to prevent the common cold.
  • Preventing the Bird Flu The bird flu, or avian influenza, is a potentially deadly virus that members of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are concerned could become an epidemic. Because of these concerns, you need to take whatever preventative measures necessary to keep this virus contained and away from you and your family. Thankfully, most of the prevention tips are the same as they are for colds and influenza, so you're probably already doing the right things. Go to this page to learn everything you need to know about the bird flu.

This informati­on is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

©2006 Publications International, Ltd.Influenza symptoms often include a high fever.

While the bird flu may be getting most of the media attention these days, good old-fashioned influenza, or "the flu," does far more damage every year. This common illness is frustrating at best, deadly at worst. But even if there is not a cure for this familiar foe, you can protect yourself from the flu.

The Types of Flu

Three types of influenza viruses -- influenza A, B, and C -- cause the flu. Type A viruses cause the most problems -- they are responsible for worldwide influenza pandemics. Type B influenza viruses cause smaller outbreaks, and type C viruses (which are much less common) cause mild symptoms. The A and B types of viruses are constantly changing, while C viruses are fairly stable.

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­Flu Infection Information

An influenza virus is spread much like a cold virus; you can get one either by inhaling an airborne droplet from an infected person's cough or sneeze or by touching something (doorknob, computer keyboard, phone, eating utensil, etc.) that has an influenza virus on it (one can live for several hours on an inanimate object). And because infected people are contagious for a day or two before showing any symptoms, many carriers are completely unaware they are sharing an influenza virus.

What makes this infection such a big deal? According to the Centers for Disease Control, the flu kills 36,000 people in the United States every year. The deaths are primarily in the elderly or those who have underlying heart, lung, liver, or kidney disease.

You'll develop symptoms within 72 hours of being exposed to an influenza virus. Although symptoms can mimic a bad cold, there are some definite differences. Classic signs that you have the flu are those notorious muscle aches; a fever, which usually ranges from 101 degrees to 103 degrees Fahrenheit in adults and higher in children; chills; a dry cough; and extreme fatigue.

These symptoms will accompany coldlike problems, such as a runny and stuffy nose, a headache, and a sore throat. Some people with the flu might experience vomiting and nausea. It usually takes a week to ten days to fully recover.

Because the flu is a virus, it can't be treated with antibiotics, but there are some prescription antiviral drugs that can shorten the time you're sick. You can also treat your symptoms with over-the-counter medicines such as acetaminophen and cough suppressants. (Avoid giving aspirin to children because of the possible risk of Reye's syndrome.)

The flu can lead to more serious illnesses, like pneumonia, so if you start experiencing troubling symptoms that get worse after you start feeling better, be sure to tell your physician.

Who's at Risk for the Flu?

Anyone can get the flu, but those most at risk of having complications are the elderly, young children (especially those 6 months old to 23 months old), pregnant women, people who have chronic heart or lung conditions or other serious diseases, and those who have weakened immune systems.

Defensive Measures Against the Flu

The best way you can protect yourself from the flu is to get a vaccination every year. Influenza viruses are constantly changing, so the strain of virus you were protected against last year is not likely the same strain striking this year. Get a flu shot at the very beginning of flu season (in October or November) so your immunity peaks when influenza outbreaks do (generally late December to mid-March). However, even getting vaccinated in December or January will provide some protection.

Flu shots are highly recommended for people who are at high risk of contracting influenza or of having severe complications. Talk with your physician if you think you fall into one of these groups.

Anti-influenza medications, such as amantadine (Symmetrel), rimantidine (Flumadine), and oseltamavir (Tamiflu) can also be used to prevent and treat the infection.

The common cold is another nasty virus. In fact, there are more than 200 common cold viruses that you can catch. Follow the tips outlined on the next page to prevent the common cold.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider. The brand name products mentioned in this publication are trademarks or service marks of their respective companies. The mention of any product in this publication does not constitute an endorsement by the respective proprietors of Publications International, Ltd. or HowStuffWorks.com, nor does it constitute an endorsement by any of these companies that their products should be used in the manner described in this publication.

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Cold viruses can come on fast, often causing a slight headache and a fever.

The common cold is typically not much more than a nuisance, but because there is no real cure, it's best to take preventative measures so that you don't have to deal with a runny nose, scratchy throat, and the like. On this page, we'll provide vital information about the common cold.

The Types of Common Cold Viruses

Take your pick: More than 200 viruses could be responsible for your cold. About 35 percent of those viruses belong to the rhinovirus family.

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Cold Infection Information

You wake up with the sniffles and a mild headache, and by lunch your throat begins to hurt and your nose starts flowing. By the time you make it home for dinner, you have a low fever, a cough, and tissues stuffed up your nostrils. Your miserable situation is thanks to a friendly, neighborhood cold virus.

Cold viruses love the warm, moist environment of your nose and upper respiratory tract, which is where they grow and wreak their havoc. Cold viruses travel to the nasal passages by different routes. Some enter via airborne droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and some are carried on hands and common objects, such as phones, drinking glasses, and toys.

Once you get the viral particles on your hands, all you need to do is touch your nose, mouth (which is part of your upper respiratory tract), or eyes (the eyes drain into the nasal passages), and the virus has found a new temporary home.

After you've been exposed to a cold virus, symptoms will show up in two or three days, and you should be over the worst of your sniffles and coughing in a week or two.

Most people will overcome a cold without complications, but the occasional cold sufferer might end up with a sinus infection or an ear infection -- both of which might require a round of antibiotics.

Cold season lasts from early fall to early spring and hits its peak during the cold, dry winter months. People spend most of their time indoors when it's cold, making it easy for viruses to jump from host to host.

Once you have a cold, you'll do well to follow Mom's instructions -- get lots of rest, drink plenty of fluids, and eat some chicken soup (the steam helps your stuffy nose and chest). You can also treat your symptoms with over-the-counter cold medicines, but be aware these are not cures and will do nothing to shorten the duration of your cold.

Who's at Risk for a Cold?

Everyone is at risk of catching a cold. Adults get about two to four colds every year, and children get eight to ten annually. For Americans, that adds up to about two billion colds a year.

The good news is once you get one particular cold virus, you develop immunity to that strain for life. So by the time you hit 60, if you're in the norm, you'll average only one cold every year.

Defensive Measures Against the Common Cold

There is no cure for the common cold, but you can protect yourself from as many sneezes as possible by:

  • Washing your hands. Your best protection against a cold virus is to wash your hands often with soap and water. Be extra vigilant with hand washing during cold season if you work with kids or if you are around someone with a cold, especially someone in your own household.
  • Keeping a stash of gel. If you can't always get to a sink, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends keeping some alcohol-based gel cleanser with you and using it often.
  • Keeping your hands away from your face. Because cold viruses like to get into your body through your mouth, nose, and eyes, keeping your hands away from these body parts is essential to keeping colds at bay.
  • Using your own stuff. Don't use a cold-sufferer's phone, keyboard, pen, drinking glass, or any other item where a cold virus can lie in wait.
  • Doing some disinfecting. Viruses are hardy creatures that can live up to three hours on objects. Use a disinfectant that specifically targets cold viruses to clean common areas.
  • Keeping that immune system humming. Eat right, exercise, and manage stress to keep your immune system at its best to help you fight off any cold bug.
  • Avoiding the crowd. Because cold viruses are so contagious, you improve your chances of not getting one if you stay away from the pack.
  • Being wary of popular "cures." There is no conclusive scientific evidence that echinacea, zinc, or vitamin C can cure a cold. In fact, taking too much of one of these can cause unwanted side effects, such as nausea.

The bird flu has been garnering increasing attention in recent years. To learn about this frightening virus, see the next page.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Pharmaceutical companies are working on a vaccine for the bird flu.

While there have been no reported cases of the bird flu, or avian influenza, in the United States, there is some concern that this virus could become an epidemic. The details in this section will help you better understand the bird flu.

Bird Flu Information

Avian influenza is an infection caused by certain new strains of influenza virus that live in the intestines of birds.

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Birds spread avian influenza viruses in feces, mucus, and body fluids. In birds, symptoms can be mild, but at its most severe (especially in poultry), avian influenza attacks multiple internal organs and causes death in about two days.

There are many different subtypes of bird flu viruses, and most don't affect people. However, some subtypes, most commonly the strain known as avian influenza A H5N1, can infect humans.

When a person contracts bird flu, symptoms mimic human influenza complaints, including cough, muscle aches, fever, and sore throat, but the infection might worsen and cause pneumonia, breathing difficulties, and even death. In documented cases of human infection with H5N1, half of those infected have died.

Although avian influenza viruses can spread from bird to bird and bird to person, they rarely spread from person to person, according to the National Institutes of Health. Importantly, as of this printing, the virus has not caused chains of infection from person to person, and no cases of H5N1 bird flu have been reported in the United States.

So why all the fear? The U.S. Department of State predicts the avian influenza virus could soon arrive in the Western Hemisphere, thanks to bird migration and the possibility of transportation of infected poultry.

But the bigger danger comes from the nature of viruses. The influenza virus is very dynamic and has the ability to change quickly, especially when different strains mix with each other. Experts are concerned that a bird flu virus could mutate into a highly contagious form that could be passed person to person.

People haven't developed a natural immunity to bird flu, and there are no immunizations available to protect us from it, so bird flu infection has the potential to reach epidemic proportions.

For a large epidemic (pandemic) to develop, three things have to happen. First, the virus must cause serious disease in people (which has occurred). Second, people must have little or no immunity to the virus and no vaccine available to protect them (again, this is true). And third, chains of infection must occur among people (lucky for us, this has not happened and might not).

Who's at Risk for the Bird Flu?

People in all age groups have contracted and died of bird flu. The H5N1 virus strain is especially aggressive and has caused the most reported cases, primarily infecting healthy children and young adults. This is particularly alarming because influenza usually kills the very young, the very old, and the sick. However, at this point, if you are not in an area where there is an outbreak, you are probably not at risk for getting bird flu.

Defensive Measures Against the Bird Flu

According to the CDC, there is no vaccine that will protect against the H5N1 virus, but several pharmaceutical companies are working on different ones. Two common antiviral medications, amantadine (Symmetrel) and rimantadine (Flumadine), have not been effective in combating the symptoms of avian influenza, but two others, oseltamavir (Tamiflu) and zanamavir (Relenza), look promising. There is absolutely no reason to ask your physician for this medication at this point, however, even if you are traveling to affected countries.

The best defense is an easy one, and one that you will see throughout this book: Wash your hands. Frequently washing your hands with soap and hot water, especially before and after eating meals or using the bathroom, keeps a variety of bacteria and viruses at bay, including the kinds that cause bird flu. Alcohol-based sanitizers that you just rub on your hands and don't need water work well, too.

You should also get a flu shot every year. The big fear right now is that a human influenza virus and a bird flu virus could combine to form a potent virus that could easily spread among people. Flu vaccination is very successful at limiting the spread of human flu and will go a long way toward keeping this potentially deadly equation from adding up.

It's also a good idea to steer clear of wild birds; pigeons; and domesticated birds used for poultry, such as chickens, ducks, and geese, in places where there have been outbreaks among birds. These countries include Cambodia, China, Croatia, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Malaysia, Mongolia, Romania, Russia, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam. You can find information about all the countries that have had cases of animal and human bird flu at the U.S. government's one-stop bird flu Web site, www.avianflu.gov.

When traveling, avoid open-air markets with live birds, and don't touch surfaces contaminated with bird droppings or feathers. And watch your children, whether abroad or at home. Children often play close to the ground and pick up all kinds of things that can harbor infections. Because many kids haven't developed good hygiene habits, they are easy prey for viruses.

No evidence of transmission exists through undercooked poultry or eggs, but for any poultry-transmitted disease, precautions include:

  • Keep it cooked. Eggshells can be contaminated with bird droppings that are full of pesky germs that can make their way into foods that use undercooked eggs. That means don't lick the beater after you make brownie batter or cookie dough, and don't eat Hollandaise sauce, homemade mayonnaise, and other foods with raw eggs as ingredients.
  • Keep it hot. If you're cooking chicken, turkey, or other poultry, use a meat thermometer to ensure it reaches an internal temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit before eating.
  • Keep it sanitized. When working with raw or partially cooked poultry, thoroughly wash everything that comes into contact with it. Sanitize cutting boards, knives, and other utensils by washing them in hot, soapy water, and use a disinfectant on counters and other surfaces. Wash your hands and dry them on a paper towel; cloth towels can harbor germs.
  • Keep it separate. If you have a pet bird, don't allow it to share food or water with other birds, especially wild ones. Keep the cage clean and wash your hands after you touch your pet.

There is speculation that other pets, such as cats, may become infected with a bird flu virus if they eat a contaminated bird, prompting some veterinarians to recommend keeping cats indoors. The close and affectionate contact between pets and owners creates a transmission risk. Although cats aren't thought to spread the virus in their feces and urine as efficiently as poultry can, be sure to wash your hands after changing the litter box.

As you've seen, there are some easy preventative measures you can take that will keep you at a lower risk for ailments such as the flu, the common cold, and even the bird flu. If you follow the tips we've outlined, you may just have a healthier, happier winter.

Read more about preventing the common cold on Sharecare.com.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Laurie L. Dove is an award-winning Kansas-based journalist and author whose work has been published internationally. A dedicated consumer advocate, Dove specializes in writing about health, parenting, fitness, and travel. An active member of the National Federation of Press Women, Dove also is the former owner of a parenting magazine and a weekly newspaper.

Michele Price Mann is a freelance writer who has written for such publications as Weight Watchers magazine and Southern Living magazine. Mann formerly was an assistant health and fitness editor at Cooking Light magazine.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

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