What do you need to know about this unwelcome virus and how can you prevent it? Seal Shield offers the following 6 tips to educate yourself and keep your family healthy this flu season.
1) What Is Influenza?The CDC describes the flu as “a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death.” Influenza typically spreads by droplets released in the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. You can also contract the flu by touching a surface contaminated with the virus and subsequently touching your eyes, nose, or mouth allowing the virus passage into your body.
Once exposed to the virus, symptoms typically emerge within 1-4 days, with 2 days being the average. Most people will recover from the virus within a few days to 2 weeks. You are able to pass the flu on to someone else before you even know that you are sick – most healthy adults can infect someone 1 day before they show symptoms, as well as up to 5-7 days after becoming sick. Young children and those with weakened immune symptoms may even be able to infect others for an extended amount of time!
Signs and symptoms of the flu include feeling some or all of the following:
- Fever* or feeling feverish/chills
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Fatigue (very tired)
- Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children than adults)
Complications of the flu can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes. As noted earlier, those most at risk for serious infection or death are the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and those with chronic medical conditions.
2) Is It The Flu Or a Cold?It’s crucial to note that both the flu and colds are caused by viruses, not bacteria, therefore antibiotics are not effective and you should avoid taking them in order to do your part in preventing antibiotic resistance (Read more about antimicrobial resistance in our blog series)
Follow this helpful chart from the CDC on determining if what you’re feeling is indeed the flu or a cold, in order to decide when to see your physician.
3) How and Why Does it Change?Like nearly everything else in our world, influenza viruses are constantly changing and evolving. For instance, some years (like this year) you’ll notice that only certain types of vaccines are recommended (more on that later) and other prevention factors besides the standards will come into play. Why does this happen?
First let’s start with the different flu types:
- Influenza Type A*
- Capable of infecting animals and humans, with human infections being more common. Wild birds commonly act as hosts for this virus. Type A is constantly evolving, includes multiple subtypes, and is typically the one responsible for large flu epidemics.
- Influenza Type B*
- Found only in humans, Type B may cause a less severe reaction than Type A, but on occasion can still be very harmful. Type B is not classified into subtypes and does not cause epidemics.
- Influenza Type C
- Found in humans as well, Type C is generally milder than both A and B, typically does not make people very ill, and does not cause epidemics.
- Influenza Type D
- Typically infects cattle and is not known to infect or cause illness in humans.
Now, back to how the flu virus changes. Influenza viruses are able to change in one of two different ways:
- Antigenic Drift
- Small changes in the genes of virus Type A and Type B that happen continually over time as the virus replicates. These changes accumulate over time and result in new viruses that the body’s immune system may not be able to recognize and fight off with existing antibodies. This is the reason why people can get the flu more than once, and also why the composition of the flu vaccine must be reviewed and updated as needed on a yearly basis.
- Antigenic Shift
- An abrupt, major change in the Influenza A virus, resulting in new proteins within the virus that infect humans. These shifts emerge from an animal population and are so different from the human subtype that most people do not have immunity to the new virus. A good example of this type of mutation is the H1N1 virus pandemic from 2009.
4) How Do You Treat It?When you are suffering from Influenza, the best thing you can do is stay at home and rest until your fever has been gone for at least 24 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medicine). This not only helps you to recover, but it helps prevent spreading the virus to others. While sick, avoid close contact with others (even within your home), cover your mouth and nose with tissue when you cough or sneeze, wash your hands often (especially after touching your face), clean and disinfect surfaces and objects, and drink plenty of water and other clear liquids to prevent dehydration. If you are caring for someone else who has the flu – wash your hands often and avoid touching your face as not to infect yourself.
While antibiotics are not recommended for the flu, as it is a virus and not caused by bacteria, antivirals are available by prescription from your physician and come in many forms such as pills, liquids, and inhaled powder. Antiviral drugs can make your illness milder and reduce the amount of time you are sick. They can especially be helpful for those considered high risk, to prevent further complications. In order to be most effective, antivirals must be taken early after symptoms appear – studies show that they work best when taken within 2 days of feeling sick, but be sure to follow your physician’s instructions on whether they are right for you and when to take them.
5) The Flu Shot – Is It For Me?Most likely the answer is a big YES. The flu shot is recommended for everyone 6 months of age and older, each season. It’s particularly important for those considered high risk for serious complications (the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and those with chronic medical conditions) to be vaccinated in order to prevent contracting the virus. If you work in healthcare, or care for those considered high risk, it’s also important for you to be vaccinated. It may not be considered pleasant, but it has many benefits, including reducing illness, doctor’s visits, hospitalizations, and missed time at work or school.
Different flu vaccines are approved for different groups of people, as well as the season itself. For instance, this year the CDC only recommends the injectable flu shot this year, new vaccines will be on the market, and the recommendations for those with egg allergies have changed. About 2 weeks after getting vaccinated, your body will develop antibodies that provide protection against flu viruses – sweet deal!
Here’s some additional guidelines on who shouldn’t receive the vaccine:
- Children under 6 months of age
- People with severe, life-threatening allergies to the flu vaccine or any of it’s ingredients
- The following people should talk to their doctor before getting the flu vaccine:
- People who have an allergy to eggs or other vaccine ingredients
- People who have ever had Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS)
- People who are feeling ill
And finally, you can use this vaccine locator to find places to get the flu shot near you!
6) How Else Can I Prevent It?We’ve all heard the saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” and when it comes to the flu, it’s the perfect “medicine”! Besides getting vaccinated, consider doing all of the following to protect yourself:
- Stay away from people who are sick, covering coughs and sneezes, etc. (politely of course!)
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu, and wash your hands after touching communal-type objects.
- Speaking of washing your hands – this is the number one way to prevent not just the flu, but all infections! So wash, wash, wash them! Hand-washing is most effective when it’s done properly, however, so read our blog post on the standards of how and when to wash your hands.