“The flu” is an acute respiratory infection actually caused by the influenza virus. It is not the same as the common cold. While many of us are familiar with the symptoms of the flu, there are still too many people who confuse an actual influenza with an unfortunate viral cold.
People with the flu usually have a sudden onset of fever, headache, muscle aches and general fatigue and may also have the usual cold symptoms of cough, sore throat and runny nose. Gastrointestinal symptoms (sometimes called “stomach flu”) are actually not usually part of influenza symptoms in adults, but are more common in children.
How do you get influenza?
You can catch the flu from exposure to an infected person and their respiratory secretions – particles emitted when someone coughs, sneezes, etc. Ew. You can actually shed the virus for 24-48 hours before you feel sick, so if you know you’ve been exposed you’re really doing us all a kindness by being even more cautious than usual with your infectious respiratory secretions. You can actually have 1-4 days between exposure and symptoms (called the incubation period), so you can’t just blame the lady coughing next to you at church, although we’d all like to. And even after you feel better, you can still shed the virus for a total of 7-10 days in otherwise healthy adults.
What are the complications of influenza?
Pneumonia – You can actually have an influenza pneumonia or a secondary bacterial pneumonia infection while your immune system was distracted fighting the flu itself. The bacterial infection is often the cause of severe illness and/or death in people over age 65.
Myositis – Inflammation of the muscles, sometimes severe enough to lead to breakdown of the muscles can be a severe but rare complication of influenza. This can lead to muscle proteins in the urine and kidney failure in severe cases.
Central nervous system involvement – Although it is unclear exactly how, the influenza virus can also attack the brain and surrounding tissues. This can lead to several severe brain pathologies, such as meningitis (inflammation of the tissue surrounding the brain), encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), or transverse myelitis (inflammation of the spinal cord). The actual influenza infection has also been associated with Guillain-Barre syndrome, in which the peripheral nervous system shuts down, likely due to the body’s own immune system getting confused and attacking it. In Guillain-Barre syndrome, people first notice weakness of their legs, which then spreads upward, hopefully stopping before it reaches muscles that control breathing. Guillain-Barre syndrome is always listed as a potential consequence of the flu vaccine, but it can be a result of getting the natural virus as well.
Cardiac – Several studies have linked influenza infection and hospitalization for poor blood flow to the heart and heart attack.
Death – In the U.S, there’s around (an average) of 30,000 deaths annually, with influenza as a contributing factor.
High risk persons
People who have medical conditions that affect their lungs or immune systems put them at increased risk for the flu: diabetes, asthma, pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, cancer. In addition, children less than 5 years old, and adults greater than 65 years old are also at greater risk.
How can you prevent influenza?
Clearly, getting the flu sucks. Well, getting a cold sucks; getting the flu really sucks. There are several ways to prevent catching the flu.
Move to Alaska to live in a bubble – It’s happened before (http://www.amazon.com/Northern-Exposure-The-Complete-Series/dp/B000V6LSO0).
Good hygiene – Wash your hands often and definitely before you touch your face, eyes, mouth or nose. You can’t make others cover their mouths and nose when they cough or sneeze (so gross!), but you can make sure you do cover your own. Always cough or sneeze into your elbow so you don’t get germs on your hands and mush them around all over the place.
Encourage sick family/friends to stay home – Sick contacts in public spread germs. We all know you’re tough; I’ll even write it on a prescription pad for you to show all your friends. Even if you’re the toughest one around, please stay home when you are sick so your whole office doesn’t get sick too. Your boss won’t be happy about you missing some work days, but will be even less happy about the entire office being out for a week because you sneezed.
Clean surfaces – Clean areas that are highly trafficked by dirty hands, such as doorknobs, light switches, keyboards, phones, desks, water faucet handles. Don’t let germs move in without paying rent.
Vaccine – The flu vaccine reduces both your risk of catching the flu and having complications if you do catch the flu. Studies show a reduction in hospitalizations of infants when pregnant women are given the vaccine (92% reduction!), of diabetics given the vaccine (79% reduction!), and of patients with chronic lung disease given the vaccine (52% reduction).
The vaccine causes your body to develop its own antibody response in the event you are exposed to the flu in the future. Because your body is mounting an immune response and generating antibodies, you can have those unpleasant side effects of mild fever, body aches or fatigue. Fortunately, it is not the flu itself and is much less severe than the actual flu. Think you don’t like feeling like that? Try getting an influenza infection. Most of the vaccines are injected via needle, but there is even a nasal spray available for you needle-phobic people out there (ages 2-50 only). The nasal spray does contain a live virus, and is not appropriate for people with poor immune systems or people who will be around those with poor immune systems. The standard flu vaccine is manufactured via virus grown in eggs, which can be a problem for people with an allergy to eggs. There is an egg-free vaccine approved for adults, so if you have an egg allergy, discuss this option with your provider.
Flu season is here. You have tools to keep yourself and those around you healthy. Set up an appointment with your provider to get your vaccine today!