History and statistics show us that there is an influenza epidemic about every 100 years. This illness does not usually present as serious in most of the human population, although some groups are especially vulnerable to the symptoms of the flu, which we will discuss below. In fact, some people infected with the flu may not even present symptoms until after they have already passed on the virus, or not at all.
What is the flu?
Influenza, which we commonly refer to as the flu, is a group of viruses that have been evolving and changing along with humankind for millennia. It is a group of respiratory viruses, and the ones affecting humans are typically influenza A or B. These viruses attack the lungs and the upper respiratory system.
The flu has different strains, which are mutations and adaptations that the virus has made throughout time and to response to outside stimuli. These stimuli can be vaccines, different hosts, or different healthy cells to attach to. The bottom line is, each year there is a different strain which is more prominent during winter and fall, when humans are most susceptible to contracting the flu virus.
The Central for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta predicts which strain will affect the US population the most each year. Some years they are correct and some years they aren’t, and so the flu shot is for a less common strain that year. We will explain more about the flu shot and different strains of the flu below.
The flu typically feels like the worst possible cold. Common symptoms include coughing and sneezing, just like with the common cold, but the flu includes deep, chesty coughing, fatigue, aches and pains, and sometimes even vomiting and/or diarrhea. The flu is usually accompanied by a fever as your body attempts to fight off the virus, and this can be a dangerous symptom if your body gets too hot.
Another secondary illness that commonly follows the flu is pneumonia, fluid buildup in the lungs. This is because the flu attacks the respiratory system, and because the immune system is weak from fighting the flu virus, the bacterium which causes pneumonia has a window to your lungs.
How the Flu Spreads
The flu virus resides in, essentially, secretions from the mouth and lungs. In other words, the flu virus can spread through someone breathing in a sneeze from an infected person, as that air contains secretions which carry the flu virus. It can also spread if an infected person shares food or drink with a non-infected person.
Anything that has these secretions (e.g., phlegm, saliva, mucus) containing the flu virus can remain infectious for hours, especially in cold weather where the virus is preserved. This is why antiviral cleaners and disinfectants are so essential during flu season—everything people touch needs to be constantly cleaned and sanitized.
A person infected with the flu is contagious mostly during the third and fourth days after their symptoms begin. This is because in the middle of the illness is when they are spreading the most secretions.
Testing for the Flu
According to the CDC, testing for the flu can produce positive results from one day before the person tested exhibits symptoms and up to five to seven days after symptoms present. Sometimes flu tests come back negative because the person simply has a terrible cold or because a weak immune system can make less serious illnesses more potent.
A flu test consists of a healthcare professional, either at an urgent care facility, hospital, or general practitioner’s office, swabbing the inside of the nose and/or the back of the throat of the ill person. This swab is then sent off to a lab to see whether or not it is the flu.
Statistically most Americans who get infected with the flu do not go in to see healthcare providers unless their symptoms present serious complications, like double pneumonia. Strong, healthy individuals tend to ride out their influenza at home with lots of fluids and rest. However, the elderly, infants, pregnant women, and those with immunodeficiencies are especially vulnerable to the flu’s symptoms and should procure an examination and advice from a healthcare professional. They can prescribe antiviral medications to aid in treatment.
Because most Americans do not even go into a healthcare provider’s facility to receive medication or even an examination when they fall ill with the flu, this means that each year, flu testing only shows a small portion of those infected. Annual statistics are taken from this very small (comparatively) number to see what percentage of the American population is infected with the flu each year. With that in mind, these statistical extrapolations are simply estimates. Another factor that contributes to these simply being estimates rather than hard statistics is that surveys conducted by the CDC ask about “flu-like illnesses” rather than the actual flu, as most patients do not get tested.
How many Americans get the flu?
Even though a small number of those infected with the flu each year actually get tested, this virus has been present in our lives for centuries, and since 1918, we have been vigilant and aware of its insidiousness. This means that through the past 100 years, doctors and virologists have been compiling data, which taken in as a whole through such a long span can give us fairly reliable information about the number of Americans infected with the flu.
It is estimated by the CDC that each year, between 9 million and 41 million Americans contract influenza. This is an extremely wide-ranging estimate for the reasons mentioned above, but it still gives us a picture into how prevalent this virus becomes each flu season. As for fatalities, the CDC only has records of “flu-related deaths.” This is because most people who die while infected with the flu die from complications, such as staphylococcus infections while in the hospital or from pneumonia. Out of the wide range of those suspected to contract the flu each year, it is estimated that about, conservatively, a tenth of one percent of those infected die.
How can you protect yourself against the flu?
Because the prevalence of different flu strains are hard to predict (which mutation/version of the flu will be the most widespread each year), flu shots may not always protect against the strain (mutation) that ends up infecting the most people. However, taking an annual flu shot does help provide protection from whatever strain the vaccine contains.
The best ways to protect yourself from the flu is by wearing a face mask in areas you know people are infected, like daycares, dormitories, hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, among many other places. Frequent handwashing is a must, and always cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Avoid touching your face (eyes, mouth, nose) to keep yourself from coming into contact with flu secretions. Distance yourself from locations and people you know have the flu or have been affected by a flu outbreak recently.
What should you do if you have the flu?
- Stay home and rest.
- Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.
- Use over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve symptoms.
- Avoid close contact with others to prevent spreading the virus.
- Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing.
- Wear a mask if you need to be around others.
- If symptoms are severe or persist for more than a week, contact a doctor.
Note: It is also important to get a flu shot every year to help prevent the flu.
What can we do?
- Confirming the diagnosis: A doctor can diagnose the flu by examining your symptoms and possibly performing a test such as a rapid flu test or a nasal swab test.
- Prescribing antiviral medication: If you are diagnosed with the flu, a doctor can prescribe antiviral medication to help reduce the severity and duration of your symptoms.
- Treating complications: The flu can sometimes lead to serious complications such as pneumonia or bronchitis, and a doctor can help treat these if they occur.
- Relieving symptoms: A doctor can provide advice on over-the-counter medications that can help relieve flu symptoms such as fever, cough, and body aches.
- Monitoring your condition: A doctor can monitor your condition to ensure that it is improving and to identify any potential complications.
- Advising on when to return to normal activities: A doctor can advise you on when it is safe to return to your normal activities, such as work or school, after you have had the flu.
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