We are in the flu season. Influenza, often called the flu, is a virus affecting the respiratory tract, causing illnesses ranging from symptoms of a severe cold to life-threatening infections such as pneumonia.
It often affects up to 10 percent of the entire population and is associated with an average of 36,000 deaths a year throughout the United States. Most deaths occur in the very old or the very young, or in those with chronic illnesses.
Influenza is transmitted by direct and indirect contact via respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing or just shaking hands. The incubation period is several days, and contagiousness can last as long as a week after the symptoms begin.
The best way to limit its spread is by frequent hand-washing with soap and water for 15 to 20 seconds and by limiting close face-to-face contact with others when symptoms are present.
It is very important to know the difference between the common winter cold and influenza. As opposed to a common cold, influenza has these distinguishing characteristics:
- Very sudden onset
- Sore throat
At the onset of influenza symptoms, people often say they feel as if they had been “run over by a truck.”
The treatment for influenza is mostly symptomatic care: plenty of rest, Tylenol or Advil (ibuprofen) for fever and aches, and maintaining adequate liquid intake. There are drugs available from a doctor which, if taken within the first 48 hours of influenza symptoms, may shorten the course of the illness by a day or two. Those are recommended for elderly or chronically ill patients with influenza symptoms.
Being immunized with a flu shot or the inhaled FluMist vaccine significantly lessens one’s chance of getting the flu. But, as with any treatment, there is no guarantee of 100 percent success. One can still get a bad viral upper respiratory infection during the winter months, even after the flu vaccine, but one should be protected from the far more serious influenza.
Most people who receive the flu shot have no bad reaction to it. Some people might experience redness and swelling at the injection site lasting a few days. One cannot get the flu from a flu shot, because it is made from a deactivated, dead virus. The benefit of the flu shot far outweighs the minimal risks.
Although the ideal time for a flu shot is from mid-October through November, the flu season can extend through May. As of this writing, the County Health Department reports very little influenza activity, but if history repeats itself, it could arrive soon.
Watch for flu shot clinics.