by Kimberly Allen RN
October marks the beginning of the 2012 -2013 flu season and the new vaccines are already being shipped to Drs offices, clinics and pharmacies all over the country. The flu is a viral infection that spreads around the world causing whats known as seasonal epidemics. There are 2 flu seasons per year, one in each hemisphere. These epidemics cause approximately 3-5 million cases of severe flu with 250,000-500,000 deaths worldwide every year. Though the number of cases of flu can vary significantly from year to year in the US over 200,000 hospitalizations and at least 36,000 deaths are directly related to the flu every year. Epidemics of the flu not only spread very quickly they are also very difficult to control. the flu is another expensive illness costing over 410 billion in medical costs and lost work in the US every year.
The flu is caused by a variety of “influenza” viruses. These are not the same viruses that cause the common cold. The influenza viruses have been divided up into 3 types named influenza A, B or C. Influenza A viruses have been responsible for several different flu epidemics. The type A influenza viruses are the most virulent of the three and usually causes the most severe cases of flu. The type A viruses can also be transmitted to other animals like birds. On the other hand influenza B viruses infect only humans. The influenza B virus is less common and less virulent than the influenza A viruses. The influenza C viruses are the least common of the three and usually cause a mild illness in children. This type can also infect other animals including dogs.
The viruses that cause the flu travel in tiny droplets of moisture that are expelled into the air when we talk, cough or sneeze. If you are talking with someone that has the flu you can inhale the infected droplets or if you touch something the droplets landed on like a phone, toys, etc. then touch your face you can become infected. Children are easily infected because their immune systems are not as strong as adults and they put almost everything they touch in their mouths.
Most people that get the flu usually have a mild illness while it may make you feel miserable with a fever, muscle aches and pains including headaches as well as weakness and fatigue, alternating chills and sweats and maybe a cough. It will usually resolve in a week to 10 days. However, some people like young children, the elderly and those with impaired immune systems are at risk for both more severe flu and complications. The most common and most serious complication of the flu is pneumonia. Pneumonia is responsible for more deaths related to the flu than any of the other potential complications. Other common but less serious complications include bronchitis as well as sinus and ear infections.
Treatment for the flu generally consists of plenty of fluids and rest. Some Drs may prescribe antiviral medication, especially if you are at risk for developing complications like pneumonia. However, some strains of the virus have become resistant to certain antiviral medications including Tamiflu.
The best way to prevent the flu is to get the flu vaccine. It is necessary to get a new vaccine every year. Though it is possible to build a resistance to the virus the problem is the virus mutates and changes rapidly and the resistance you built up is not any good against the mutated form of the virus. Each year the pharmaceutical companies that make the flu vaccine determine which viruses are expected to be more prevalent during that particular year. Then make a vaccine that will protect you against the top three. The vaccine is usually available in early October. Because the vaccine offers protection against only the 3 most prevalent viruses it is not 100% effective, there are still numerous other viruses out there that can also cause influenza so it is possible to get a form of the flu even if you’ve had the vaccine, but it is usually much milder. It is important to also take the dame precautions as you would for other infections including practicing good hand washing and covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Maintaining a healthy immune system will help you fight any virus not just the influenza virus and it will also improve your recovery time.