Influenza is a common virus that causes respiratory tract infection. Commonly called as Flu, this infection is seasonal and highly contagious. Influenza virus keeps on changing strains causing new symptoms frequently. Some of the symptoms of influenza are fever, dry cough, nasal congestion and fatigue. Flu can be prevented by vaccination. In severe cases, flu can cause life threatening complications and even death. The new flu virus (swine flu) named H1N1 developed in Mexico in April 2009, killing several hundreds of people all over the world. World Health Organization has declared this virus as pandemic.
Epidemic and Pandemic :
Flu viruses have cause serious outbreaks during season affecting millions of people in addition to birds and animals. When such a sudden outbreak occurs, the affected population will develop weakened immunity spreading quickly. Such outbreaks are called epidemics.
When such an outbreak affects human population worldwide it is called as pandemics. The virus is so contagious that it spreads through air easily affecting millions of people every second. The virus is smart enough to develop new strains gaining more power every day thus not responding to any vaccine. It was the Spanish flu that occurred in 1918 causing several million deaths over the world and later it was Swine flu in 2009 which was a pandemic.
Who are at risk?
Influenza virus can attack anyone with weak immunity like older adults, infants, young children, and pregnant women. You have increased risk of developing flu infection if your workplace involves close contact with people, if your immunity is tampered due to any reason, or if you have developed any chronic diseases like asthma or diabetes.
The symptom of flu begins with common cold, runny nose, and mild fever. But within couple of days it will produce serious symptoms like high fever, severe muscle ache on your back and arms, headache, chills, dry cough and sore throat. It attacks respiratory tract infecting your lungs from mild to severely. Some viruses can cause stomach infection leading to vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. If you have any of the above symptoms, then you need to take antiviral medications right away to prevent any complications.
Influenza viruses can spread through air droplets like coughing, sneezing or even talking. The virus can stick on to any objects and get transferred into your body if you accidentally touch your eyes or nose or mouth after touching these objects. People affected with influenza virus will have the required antibodies for fighting any new infection.
But the flu virus may develop new strains by mutation gaining more strength. You can always prevent the infection by getting vaccinated. Influenza viruses have several subtypes and strains that occur in different combinations. In individuals who have weakened immunity like infants, older adults or asthma patients the virus will repeatedly affect them making them more susceptible for bacterial infections also causing pneumonia.
In severe cases, influenza virus can cause bronchitis, pneumonia, eyes and ear infections. In some cases due to complicated respiratory tract infection it can cause death.
Your doctor will check for the above symptoms for detecting the presence of virus. He may collect throat swab to the laboratory for confirming the diagnoses. Tests are available for differentiating influenza A and B types. Now technology has improved to detect H1N1 flu virus in few hours of testing so that vaccination can be given immediately.
Healthy individuals may not require vigorous treatment for flu and often the symptoms will disappear in few days. But there is nothing wrong in taking antiviral drugs like Tamiflu or Relenza if the virus is seasonal in your area affecting many individuals. Tamiflu is an oral medication taken with water. Zanamivir is another antiviral drug that can be inhaled by a device or inhaler. But people with any type of heart/lung/respiratory disease should not take this medication.
Home Remedies :
If you suspect flu symptoms for any of your loved ones, you need to make them drink plenty of liquids like juice or warm soup. Take plenty of rest and avoid mingling with people until the symptoms have totally vanished. Over the counter pain relievers like acetaminophen can be taken to get relief from fever and body pain. As per the recommendations of the CDC (Center for disease control/prevention) every American citizen who are above 6 months of age, should get vaccinated for flu.
You can prevent getting influenza infection by getting vaccinated. Wash your hands for at least 10 seconds before taking food. Alternatively you can use hand sanitizers (alcohol based) to prevent spread of infection. Cover your nose/mouth while sneezing or coughing. Avoid mixing with crowd (particularly during flu season) to reduce the chance of getting flu infection.
When to see a doctor?
You should get in touch with emergency department if you have:
• Trouble in breathing/palpitation or fast breathing
• Change of skin color (blue or grayish)
• Severe vomiting or diarrhea (not controlled by OTC medications)
• Fatigue with high fever and nasal congestion
• Confusion, dizziness
• Sudden pain in the chest