Influenza or the flu is a viral infection that affects the respiratory system, i.e. the throat, nose, and lungs. It is different from stomach flu which is characterized by vomiting and diarrhea.
Flu as well as its complications can be life-threatening. Older adults, young children, pregnant women, and individuals with chronic diseases and a compromised immune system are at greater risk to developing flu complications.
The best way to defend against flu is by getting the annual vaccination.It is one of the most effective ways to prevent the illness. It is available almost throughout the world and can be taken by everyone over six months old. Flu vaccine does not produce any severe side effects.
Symptoms of flu
At first, flu is usually accompanied by sneezing, a runny nose, and sore throat. Hence, it may be mistaken for the common cold. However, the latter tends to develop gradually, while flu has a rapid onset. Also the symptoms of flu cause more discomfort and are more severe than those accompanying colds.
Some of the common signs and symptoms of flu are listed below:
- High fever with body temperature of over 38 C or 100 F
- Nasal congestion
- Sweats and chills
- A dry cough
- Muscle aches, particularly in the arms, back, and legs
- Weakness and fatigue
How long does the flu last?
In normal adults, infection by the flu virus usually lasts anywhere between three to ten days.
It may however be noted that the severity and duration of flu is somewhat dependent on the strength of the immune system. Hence, the duration of flu tends to differ from one patient to another. It has been observed that babies, younger children, and the elderly usually experience the flu for longer durations as they have weaker immune systems.
Additionally, patients who do not take rest or medicines can suffer from flu for a longer period as well as have a greater risk to developing health complications. It is therefore important for all affected individuals to seek immediate medical treatment, especially if the common symptoms of flu are accompanied by other symptoms such as vomiting, nausea, etc.
It is also important to note that flu is very contagious and can easily spread from a patient to another individual. The infection can transmit after contact with bodily fluids of the patient. Hence, healthy people should not share or touch towels, clothes, and other personal items used by flu patients.
Causes of flu
Flu is caused due to infection by the influenza viruses A, B, and C. Infection with the A-type flu virus gives rise to acute symptoms, while the rest two cause less serious symptoms and are also rarer.
When a person with flu sneezes, coughs, or talks then he/she releases droplets containing the flu viruses into the air. Such droplets can be directly inhaled by others. The pathogens can also get transmitted via contact with infected objects such as a keyboard, telephone, door knobs, etc. that contain the droplets.
Flu viruses experience continuous changes and evolution, wherein new strains form on a regular basis. The bodies of people who have previously suffered from flu already have antibodies to fight off that specific strain of flu virus. Vaccination also inducts antibodies into the body. Hence, people with antibodies to varied strains of flu viruses are more likely to suffer from mild cases of flu, or it may not occur at all.
It may however be noted that people with antibodies to some strains of flu viruses may not have the same immunity level against other subtypes of flu viruses. Many new varieties and subtypes of flu viruses have infected humans since the pandemic of 1918 which killed millions of people.
The below listed factors can increase the susceptibility to developing the flu or its complications:
- Young children, pregnant women, and older adults are at increased risk
- Living in crowded conditions
- Being a health care or a child care worker
- Presence of chronic conditions or an impaired immune system
Treatment of flu
In most cases, individuals affected by flu only need to intake lots of fluids and take bed rest to cure the condition. Sometimes doctors may prescribe antivirals to alleviate the symptoms and treat the illness. Intake of medications immediately after the appearance of symptoms can also help shorten the span of the disease by a day or two, as well as aid in prevention of severe complications.
Patients may follow the steps given below to ease the symptoms of flu:
- Taking lots of rest can help the immune system in fighting off the infection.
- Patients should drink lots of fluids such as juice, water, and warm soups to keep the body hydrated. It is necessary to intake sufficient fluids which result in a clear or pale yellowish urine.
- Non-prescription pain killer medications can be taken to get relief from achiness.
As flu vaccine does not prevent the illness in all cases, the spread of flu can be controlled by covering the mouth when coughing or sneezing, thoroughly washing one’s hands, and avoiding crowded areas during flu season.