Getting serious about the flu

Penulis: Canadian Health Network
It’s winter and that means that winter illnesses are heading our way. Influenza or “the flu” is a common infectious, respiratory disease that affects between one in four and one in ten Canadians each year. It can also be serious and deadly. Every year, up to 1,500 Canadians, mostly seniors, die from influenza-related pneumonia and many others die from other influenza related complications such as an aggravation of underlying chronic heart and lung disease.

It’s time to take the flu seriously.
Recently it seems that our newspapers are filled with reports of various infectious diseases around the world, with SARS and Avian Influenza as the most recent examples. In all cases, prevention is the key to containing and controlling the spread of infectious diseases. As we prepare for the annual flu season, there are many practical things that Canadians can do to protect themselves against the spread of the flu.

What is the flu?
The flu or influenza, is an infectious, respiratory disease that begins in your nose and throat. The flu is caused by the highly contagious, influenza virus, and spreads rapidly from person to person – usually by a simple cough or a sneeze. It has nothing to do with what some people call ‘stomach flu’ which causes abdominal upset and diarrhea.

There are many viruses that are in the environment around us, passing from person to person or through contaminated objects. This is even more of a problem when we’re all crowded indoors during the colder months. Some of these viruses cause a simple cold. Others cause influenza.

How do you know if you have the flu?
There are clear ways to tell whether you have symptoms of influenza or just a cold. A typical flu begins with a headache, chills and cough, and rapidly develops into fever, loss of appetite, muscle aches and fatigue, runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes and throat irritation. Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea may also occur, especially in children.

When you have a common cold you generally have a runny nose, sneezing, nasal congestion and throat irritation. Fever is uncommon and you will improve in 2-3 days. The flu is miserable to have. If you have the flu, usually you will have a high fever that lasts for 3-4 days, a headache and muscle aches, extreme fatigue that may last 2-3 weeks, and a bad cough.

Fortunately, for healthy adults, the flu is very rarely a serious disease, but its complications can be severe, even deadly for some people, particularly the elderly or people with chronic illnesses. These complications can include bronchitis, pneumonia, kidney failure or heart failure.

How can the flu be prevented?
Get a flu shot every year
Healthy eating, adequate sleep and physical activity are essential to your health, but won’t protect you completely from the influenza virus. To prevent influenza, the most effective way is to get the vaccine. Flu shots are especially important for certain groups of people.

Each year, the World Health Organization predicts the three most common strains of the influenza virus and a vaccine is developed for that year. Because the viruses are constantly changing, you need a new vaccine each year to make sure your body forms antibodies against these new flu viruses.

And there is another reason to be extra cautious about influenza this year which is that the early symptoms of the flu are very similar to those of SARS. The difficulty of distinguishing between the early symptoms of SARS and the flu is one reason that world experts are recommending that all health care workers get the influenza vaccine this year.

Fall is best
It is best to get your flu shot between October and December, however, influenza immunization should be provided any time during the current influenza season from October to March, even after the influenza has been reported. The flu shot takes about 2 weeks from the time the shot is given to provide full protection.

Getting yourself vaccinated also helps to protect those around you. This is especially important if you live or work with seniors and people who have chronic diseases, including asthma, diabetes, heart disease or other conditions that weaken the immune systems.

Flu shots do not give you the flu
You cannot get the flu from the vaccine. This is because the viruses used to make the vaccine have been killed. People who think they caught the flu after receiving their shot are confusing their symptoms with those of a cold, or another virus. They could also have caught another strain of influenza not included in the vaccine.

Wash your hands and cover your mouth
Viruses can live for up to 48 hours on the surfaces of toys, coffee makers, doorknobs, computer keyboards, and other hard surfaces. It can take up to a week for flu symptoms to appear, and in that time you can infect others. To reduce the risk of spreading the virus, it’s a good practice to wash your hands often with hot water and soap.

The influenza virus also spreads quickly from person to person through droplets in the air. These droplets come from our noses and mouths, so it’s important to cover them when you cough or sneeze.

If you get the flu
If you do get the flu, rest and drink plenty of fluids. The aches and fever can be treated with over the counter medication such as acetaminophen. Children should not be given acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) because of the risk of Reye’s syndrome. If your symptoms do not improve, see your doctor; you may be suffering from serious side effects of the flu. Antibiotics have no effect against a viral illness like the flu.

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