Now that it’s December and plenty of stockings have been hung by the chimney with care, flu season is well underway. Beginning in October, influenza cases begin to climb in Lexington and Columbia. You can prepare by getting a flu shot and taking a few other precautions. Here are some important facts about flu.
What Causes Influenza?
The flu is caused by one of four different types of viruses, labeled A, B, C and D by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All four types are contagious, though not all pose a threat to humans.
- Type A is the most serious, and the most likely to mutate into a new strain we are not resistant to. Most flu pandemics in the past, including the H1N1 swine flu, were Type A viruses. There are dozens of different strains.
- Type B is usually less severe and results in smaller outbreaks. Children are most likely to be affected. There are a few different subtypes.
- Type C causes mild symptoms similar to the common cold.
- Type D is confined to cattle.
Not all flu types circulate at the same time, but they are all contagious. In a typical year, one or two strains of both Type A and Type B virus circulate. Influenza vaccinations are your best shot at protection (pun intended). Every February, the World Health Organization (WHO) determines which of the different flu virus strains are likely to circulate through the northern hemisphere in the following winter and manufacturers develop vaccines based on this prediction. Flu vaccines protect against three or four types of flu virus, usually two Type As and one or two Type Bs. Despite a few beliefs to the contrary, the flu vaccine contains inactivated flu viruses and cannot give you the flu.
Flu is spread through droplets dispersed by sneezing and coughing. Even talking from a distance of six feet can spread the germ, making flu highly contagious. You are most contagious in the first three or four days, though you might not be displaying any symptoms yet. In fact, you are most contagious a day before symptoms appear, which makes it easy to spread the virus without even knowing it. Once symptoms develop, you will be contagious for about a week. Your only real way to guarantee you won’t get the flu is to avoid all human contact, but that’s not very realistic! Once your fever has been gone for 24 hours without medication, you are no longer contagious.
While many symptoms of the flu resemble a cold, it develops more suddenly and is more serious. It can even prove fatal in people who are susceptible; those most at risk are people aged 65 and older or 5 and younger, pregnant women, residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities and individuals with certain chronic diseases, such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease. If you have the flu, you are likely to experience any or all of the following:
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
Most cases of flu can be treated at home, requiring little more than bed rest and fluids. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen can be used to treat aches and pains. Children should never be given aspirin, which can cause a rare but fatal complication called Reye’s syndrome. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medications for severe symptoms.
Help prevent the spread of flu by covering coughs and sneezes (cough into your elbow instead of your hands), being diligent about washing your hands and using plenty of hand sanitizer.
If you have additional questions about the flu, contact a CENTA provider.