Influenza

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The influenza virus causes more severe symptoms and can cause more severe complications than other respiratory viruses, such as cold viruses. The elderly, people whose immune systems are impaired, and people who have chronic medical problems are at risk for more severe flu symptoms or complications. Worldwide epidemics of flu are common every year.

How does it occur?

The influenza virus can infect you when you are exposed to an infected person's upper respiratory fluids. For example, laptopdroplets released into the air by coughing or sneezing can carry the virus.

 

What are the symptoms?

Influenza tends to start suddenly. You may feel fine one hour and have a high fever the next.

The usual first symptoms are:

  • fever (often 101 to 103 degrees F, or 38 to 40 degrees C)
    chills
    sweating
    muscle aches
    headache.

Symptoms soon to follow may include:

  • runny nose
    cough
    sore throat
    watery eyes
    eyes sensitive to light.

These acute symptoms usually last 3 to 5 days. They often start improving gradually after the first 48 hours or so.

Infection with the flu virus often leads to other infections. Ear, sinus, and bronchial infections are examples of such infections. Pneumonia can also occur as a result of the flu. It can be caused by the influenza virus itself or by bacteria invading the virus-damaged lung tissues.

An unusual complication of flu is Reye's syndrome, which usually occurs in children and adolescents and rarely occurs in adults. Reye's syndrome is not well understood but it involves failure of the liver and brain swelling, which together can lead to coma and sometimes death. A link has been shown between the use of aspirin during influenza illness and the development of Reye's syndrome. For this reason it is best to AVOID aspirin use when you have the flu.

How is it diagnosed?

Influenza can usually be diagnosed from your symptoms. Your health care provider may do a physical exam to rule out other types of infection, such as strep throat and sinusitis.

How is it treated?

It is very important to drink a lot of liquids. Water, juice, and non-caffeinated drinks are best. Especially when you have a high fever, your body needs much more liquid than when you are healthy. Having enough fluids also helps the mucus in your sinuses and lungs to stay thin and easy to clear from the body. When the mucus is moist, it is less likely to block sinus passages and bronchial tubes in your lungs.

Many health care providers recommend using nonprescription medicines to lower a fever: either acetaminophen or an anti-inflammatory, such as ibuprofen. Do NOT use aspirin if you have the flu. Some doctors feel that because fever is part of the immune system's reaction to infection, it is better to let a fever run its course than to try to lower it. Letting the fever run its course, however, can be dangerous in children and the elderly. Also, most healthy adults feel much better if the fever is decreased even 1 or 2 degrees.

If your nose or sinuses become congested, decongestants may help you feel better and may possibly help prevent ear or sinus infections. Cough suppressants may be used safely for a cough. Antihistamines have a very drying effect and may cause the mucus in your nose and throat and lungs to become thick and dry. However, antihistamines can be helpful if a runny nose is making it hard for you to sleep.

Sometimes there are medicines your health care provider can prescribe that can make flu symptoms less severe. They may also help the symptoms not last as long, but often they must be started within the first 48 hours.

What can I do to prevent influenza?

The best way to prevent influenza is to get a flu shot every year. Flu shots are about 70% effective in preventing influenza. Very few people have side effects. About 1% to 2% may have mild flu symptoms in the first 24 hours after getting a flu shot. People who are allergic to eggs and to thimerosal (a preservative present in contact lens solutions and the flu vaccine) should not get flu shots.

The simplest, oldest method of avoiding spread of infection is frequent hand washing, preferably with antibacterial soap from a sanitary dispenser. It is also a good practice not to eat in or near your workplace. Your hands or food might be contaminated with the virus particles from co-workers, customers, or schoolchildren.