Medical Note: Influenza

Declining temperatures and shorter days mean that flu season is approaching.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 5 and 20 percent of Americans get the flu each year. More than 200,000 of these individuals are hospitalized for their illness.

The flu is a respiratory disease caused by the influenza virus. This virus is usually spread through the sinuses by sneezing, coughing, or kissing. It can also be passed along by touching an infected surface and transferring the virus through the eyes or nose.

Common flu symptoms include headache, sore throat, fever, and tiredness. Children can also experience nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

The influenza virus can lead to more serious complications, such as sinus infection, dehydration, and bacterial pneumonia. Around 20,000 Americans die each year from flu complications. People with asthma or cystic fibrosis are especially susceptible to complications due to their weakened respiratory systems.

Because flu symptoms usually appear after infection, a person can spread the illness without knowing that it is present. In fact, it can take up to 24 hours for a person who has contracted the flu virus to display symptoms. Once the disease has been contracted, it is contagious for up to seven days.

The best way to avoid getting the flu is to receive a flu shot each year. The flu shot is an inactive vaccine that can be given to individuals six months and older. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to provide protection against the influenza virus.

Flu vaccine also comes in the form of nasal spray, which contains live influenza viruses that are not strong enough to cause illness. This vaccination is only meant for healthy individuals who are over the age of five.

Because the nasal spray contains live influenza viruses, patients may experience flu symptoms, such as fever and muscle aches.

If you get the flu, try to get plenty of rest and drink fluids that contain electrolytes. Electrolytes are ions that help maintain your body’s water levels. Fruit juices, chicken soup, and sports drinks are good sources of electrolytes.

Flu season typically begins in early winter and can end as late as early spring, peaking in January. During winter, indoor humidity is low compared to outdoor humidity, allowing the flu virus to survive longer indoors.

As with other contagious diseases, the flu is less likely to spread if people stay away from ill individuals and wash their hands frequently.