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home  > health & wellness  > article

Health & Wellness

By Dr. Bhumi Upadhyay

What really is the flu? Is it the common cold? Is it the stomach bug? Flu is a highly contagious respiratory virus caused by the influenza virus. It can cause mild to severe symptoms. As much as 20% of the population gets the flu every year. There are more than 200,000 hospitalizations and even 30,000 deaths from complications of the flu yearly.

How can you tell the difference from a common cold? The flu is usually a rapid and violent onset of runny nose, cough and fever. The worst of the symptoms will last 5-7 days but you can feel mild symptoms even up to 3 weeks. Other symptoms include headache, tiredness, sore throat, muscle or body aches, and stomach symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. There can also be complications of the flu. These include ear infections, sinus infections, pneumonia, dehydration, asthma exacerbation, or worsening of any underlying chronic disease such as diabetes. Those at highest risk for complications are the young children, the elderly, and anyone with an underlying chronic illness.

How does the flu spread? The flu virus spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets, which mean coughing or sneezing. This occurs when an infected person coughs or sneezes and the infected droplet jets through the air and deposits on the mouth or nose of another person. Spread can also occur when a person touches droplets of an infected person and then touches his mouth or nose before washing hands. The flu is highly contagious! An infected person can actually spread the virus one day prior to symptoms, so you can infect someone even before you get sick! A person remains infective until 5 days into the illness.

The flu is a seasonal virus and mainly affects us during the winter months. Flu virus mainly spreads from November through April with peak in December/January. Certain flu seasons will be more severe if the major circulating strain is not in the vaccine formulation selected by the World Health organization. This is called a mismatch strain.

The best protection is prevention. Here are a few steps: get your flu vaccine, wash hands, stay home if you are not feeling well, and use the elbow to cough.

As mentioned earlier, children are at greater risk for the flu and its complications. More than 30% of school aged children get the flu. Approximately 20,000 children are hospitalized annually from flu complications and about 100 deaths result in children annually. Due to these statistics, the CDC has changed the annual vaccination recommendation. Previous recommendation was all children between the ages of 6 months to 59 months should receive the annual vaccine, and all children above 5 years old with any underlying medical conditions should also receive the vaccine. This year, the new recommendation is all children ages 6 months to 18 years old regardless of medical condition should get an annual vaccine. Even though the vaccine only contains the most popular strains of the flu, it will still give some protection against the mismatched strains mentioned earlier. There are a few reasons why a person cannot get the vaccine, such as severe egg allergy, previous allergic reaction to the vaccine, or having history of Guillain Barre Syndrome. Individuals with fever should just delay the vaccine until symptoms resolve.

If you think you may have flu symptoms, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. The flu can be diagnosed in the office with a rapid flu test, and antiviral medication may be an option if diagnosed in the first 48-72 hours. In addition, supportive care is the best option-plenty of fluids, rest, vitamin C, probiotics, and acetaminophen or ibuprofen as needed. Remember no aspirin and no cold medications for the children!!

The flu season can cause a lot of anxiety. Just remember, prevention is the key. Discuss with your doctor your options for the flu vaccine. December 8-14, 2008, is the official National Influenza Vaccination Week to get the awareness out there to the community.

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