Every year, up to 20 percent of the United States gets influenza. Generally known as the flu, this is a highly infectious viral illness that affects the respiratory tract in people of all ages. It occurs most frequently during the fall and winter months, however, it can occur at any time of the year. Additionally, the flu is often costly in terms of missed school and work, as well as medical costs. Fortunately, steps can be taken to avoid getting the flu or spreading it to others. To do that, however, it’s important that people understand key facts about the flu, which will also help to limit its spread.
Signs and Symptoms Associated with the Flu
The flu is often mistaken for, a cold as it shares some of the same symptoms. With influenza, shared symptoms such as sneezing, a sore throat, and a runny nose are typically more extreme. Other symptoms and signs that are commonly associated with influenza include a fever that’s greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, chills, sweating, and a headache. A person with the flu may suffer from fatigue and aching muscles predominately in the joints, arms, legs, and back. Episodes of diarrhea and vomiting can also be a sign, however, this is most common with young children. Although these are all symptoms that are associated with influenza, people do not need to show signs of them all to have the flu.
How the Flu Spreads
The flu spreads when people come into contact with respiratory droplets of saliva that contain the flu viruses. These droplets are generated from one’s mouth or nose by coughing or sneezing, which can propel them as far as six feet. These droplets can land on surfaces and spreads when people unknowingly touch them and then touch their eyes, mouths, or noses. Bodily contact can also spread the viruses, whether it is direct contact such as kissing, or indirectly such as shaking hands with someone who has failed to wash their hands.
Onset of Symptoms and Contagiousness
People generally start to develop signs and symptoms of the flu 1 to 4 days after they’ve been infected by one of the flu viruses. The contagious period, however, can potentially begin 24 hours before they realize that they are even sick. Additionally, people may continue being contagious for as long as 7 days once symptoms have developed, although it is generally more contagious the first 3 to 4 days. Individuals who have immune problems and young children may even be able to spread the disease longer than most people.
Although the flu will often pass without major incident, there are people who do experience complications from their illness. These complications range from mild to severe and may be bacterial in nature. Common complications associated with influenza include ear infections, sinusitis, meningitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, and worsening of serious or chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, COPD, or heart disease. Sepsis is yet another complication that may potentially occur as a result of influenza.
Individuals at High Risk
Everyone is at risk of getting the flu, particularly when they are around others who are sick. In addition, anyone can suffer from associated complications. There are, however, some people who are at a greater risk of getting seriously ill from influenza. Generally, young children under the age of 2, pregnant women, people who are 65 years old or older, and anyone who may have a chronic illness, such as diabetes or heart disease are considered high risk.
There are, fortunately, ways to reduce the risk of getting the flu. One of the first things to do is get vaccinated every year. Annual vaccinations are important, as flu virus strains are often different from one year to the next. In addition to the vaccine, regular washing of the hands is crucial, particularly before touching the face or eating. When possible, avoiding contact with people who are currently sick with the flu is helpful. Healthy eating, exercise, and getting enough sleep are all actions that are also important to preventing the flu. Anyone who has the flu should cough or sneeze into the crook of their elbow or into a tissue. They too should wash their hands frequently to avoid spreading it onto objects and ultimately to others.
In most cases, doctors are able to diagnose the flu based off of their patient’s symptoms. If there are any questions, lab tests may be ordered. Rapid influenza diagnostic tests, or FIDTs, are an example of some of the more common tests that are ordered by physicians. These tests can detect antigens and can give results within 15 minutes. These tests, however, are less accurate than other tests such as the rapid molecular assays test that gives results within 20 minutes and can detect the virus’ genetic material. Both tests require the back of the nose or throat to be swabbed and sent to a lab.
People who have the flu often do not require much, if any, treatment. Getting plenty of bed rest is recommended to boost the immune system and drinking fluids, such as juice, water, and soup can help prevent dehydration. If necessary, pain relievers can be taken to reduce fever and aches. Certain antiviral drugs may be prescribed that, if taken when the symptoms first appear, can potentially shorten the length of the flu and decrease the risk of complications.
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