What you should know about Influenza

What is Influenza?

Influenza is not the stomach flu or the common cold that we all get.  It is a serious viral infection that occurs in epidemics and according to CDC estimates influenza has resulted in between 9 million – 45 million illnesses, between 140,000 – 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 – 61,000 deaths annually since 2010.

“Flu shots are given each fall to immunize against the expected strains of the virus.  The shots should be given as close as possible to October to be ready for the epidemic season which usually occurs October 1 through March 31.  Keep in mind, it takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies that protect against flu to develop in the body,” explains Eric Slaughter, RN, BSN and Director of Safety and Infection Control at Missouri Delta Medical Center.

Influenza often acts like the common cold at first, with coughing and respiratory symptoms, but the symptoms rapidly worsen.  According to Slaughter, “Influenza also differs from the common cold in many ways.  Influenza usually causes a significant fever which lasts for 3-4 days, while colds have a minimal fever.  However, it is important to note that people may be infected with the flu and have respiratory symptoms without a fever.”

A person with the flu has rather severe aches and pains in the muscles and joints as well as a severe headache.  Fatigue can be very prominent; many people can barely get out of bed.

The runny nose, sneezing, and sore throat that are so common with the common cold are much less prominent with influenza.  Instead of the sinus congestion and ear infections seen with colds, influenza is more likely to cause serious life-threatening pneumonias, bronchitis, and worsening of existing chronic health conditions.

The people who are prone to the more severe flu-related complications are those who have chronic illnesses such as: heart or lung disease, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, people with compromised immune systems, and many other chronic conditions; as well as pregnant women, people 65 years and older, and children younger than 5 years old–especially those younger than 2.

A flu vaccine offers the best defense against flu and its potentially serious consequences and can also reduce the spread of flu to others. Getting vaccinated has been shown to reduce flu illnesses, doctor’s visits, missed work and school days, and reduce the risk of flu-related hospitalization and death.

In addition to getting a seasonal flu vaccine, you can take everyday preventive actions like staying away from sick people and washing your hands to reduce the spread of germs. If you are sick with the flu, stay home from work or school to prevent spreading flu to others. Use good respiratory etiquette, cover your mouth or nose if you have to cough or sneeze, followed by washing your hands.  Also, there are prescription medications called antiviral drugs that can be used to treat flu illness, talk with your provider.