Do You Need Protection from the Influenza?
Every year in the United States approximately 36,000 people die an influenza-related death. Of the 5% to 20% of the population that gets the flu, more than 200,000 people end up in the hospital because of complications associated with the virus.
If you want protection from the influenza, the best thing to do is get an influenza immunization or “flu shot” every year, and educate yourself a little on the topic. The first part is up to you; I’m going to try and help you with the second.
What is Influenza?
Influenza, commonly known as the flu, or grippe, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It travels the globe in seasonal epidemics (an infectious disease that affects more people and does more damage locally than was expected) , and sometimes genetic changes in the virus cause pandemics (the infectious disease affects people or animals over an extensive geographical area) and millions of people die.
There are three different types of influenza:
Type A: The most serious, most acute, and most common form. A breakout occurs every two to three years.
Type B: A similar but milder influenza than type A. A breakout occurs every four to five years.
Type C: The mildest of the three. Symptoms resemble a cold.
Although influenza is a respiratory illness, the entire body suffers. Fevers, chills, headaches, loss of appetite, muscle pain, runny nose, diarrhea, sore throat, nausea, dry coughs, fatigue, and burning eyes are the lot of the victim.
Sometimes that list is increased with the onset of flu-induced complications, like dehydration or pneumonia. The nasty virus can also affect existing medical conditions, making them much more dangerous and potentially fatal; conditions like diabetes, asthma, and other lung and heart diseases.
In the United States, the senior population is especially vulnerable due to the fact that just about one-third of people between the ages of fifty and sixty-four have at least one existing medical condition.
The Flu or a Cold?
When people aren’t feeling well, they aren’t real picky about what they consider to be minor technicalities. Like whether they have the flu or a cold. But there are several differences. A person with a bad cold might catch the flu from regular channels, but a bad cold cannot grow into the flu.
If you are lying in bed with a headache, you most likely have the flu. Headaches rarely show up along side the common cold. A cold might share a few symptoms with the flu, like muscle aches or cough, but it is mild in comparison. The core of the cold is a runny nose and sore throat, accompanied by lots of sneezing. If there is a cough, it is a gentle one.
The flu on the other hand, brings severe and sudden headaches, painful muscle aches, weakness that can drag on for over two weeks, and exhaustion, usually accompanied by a serious and painful cough. There may or may not be a sore throat, runny nose, or sneezing.
The only good thing about the flu is that you are rarely infected twice with the same one. Your body develops a resistance to it within two to four weeks. Of course, that doesn’t spare you from the new one that the old one mutates into. The virus is constantly making slight changes to itself, which poses a problem for keeping vaccines up to date.
The flu shot is considered safe for healthy persons over six months old and people with chronic medical conditions, and used to be the only option. Now there is an additional choice, the nasal-spray flu vaccine.
The spray is called “Live attenuated Influenza Vaccine,” or LAIV and is made of live, weakened flu viruses that do not cause the flu. LAIV is not recommended for persons with health problems, pregnant women, young children under five, or adults over the age of forty-nine.
A very small number of people suffer minor reactions to vaccinations. These include chills, mild headache, and maybe a touch of nausea, and usually pass after a few days. A larger number of people might have a little tenderness and color where the vaccine was given.
While you should definitely talk to your doctor and get vaccinated if he suggests it, you need to also know that there are no guarantees. Every year, scientists get together and decide what three strains of the many influenza viruses are most likely to show up in the United States this time. If their selection turns out to be right, and you are healthy and under sixty-five years old, your vaccination bought you a 70%-90% chance of skipping it.
Between October and November is the best time to get vaccinated. If you are a procrastinator, and got the flu before you got around to getting vaccinated, you can still get the shot. It will reduce your risk of complications, and should keep your symptoms a little milder too.
There is a segment of the population that should not take the vaccine without consulting a doctor. (I think everyone should consult their doctor first, but I’m just a hypochondriac leukemia survivor.) This group includes:
People who have had a reaction to a vaccination in the past.
Children under six-months old.
People allergic to chicken eggs.
People who have an illness with a fever should wait until the symptoms decrease.
How Influenza Gets Around
Flu viruses are passed from one person to another through the air, usually traveling in the respiratory droplets of a cough or a sneeze. Many people become infected by touching something with the virus on it and then touching their nose or mouth. If you become infected, you are able to pass it on to someone else before you even have any symptoms.
If you are not sick, avoid contact with people who are. Wash your hands every time you get a chance and avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
If you are sick, stay away from others to avoid spreading the illness. Stay home unless you are on your way to an appointment with your doctor. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue and wash your hands often to help protect yourself and others from germs.
The flu usually last between three and five days. During this time, try and get plenty of rest and plenty of sleep. Drink water as much as possible to compensate for what you may be losing through the fever (and diarrhea and/or vomiting if that’s the case). Talk to your doctor about taking aspirin for the fever and muscle aches, and also about a cough remedy if you need it.
The 20th century saw its share of the damage influenza can do. From 1918-1919, the Spanish Flu pandemic claimed more lives in a few weeks than World War I did in a few years. The flu is not something to be taken lightly.
Take precautions, take your doctor’s advice, and take your vaccination. But most important, take care of yourself and be thankful for each day that you have.