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.
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.
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