Influenza is arguably the most widely recognized viral infection on the face of the earth. The many strains of the virus have infiltrated every corner of the world and have led to massive vaccination movements in many countries. While many ailments are generally blamed on influenza, the true illnesses caused by viral strains of influenza are often moderate to severe and can lead to death.
Causes. Influenza is a viral disease, which means that it is caused by a live virus gaining access to any human body that does not have sufficient immunity to fight it. In most cases, influenza is spread from one person to another through contact with bodily fluids, even in such small amounts as the moisture that is released into the air by normal talking, laughing, coughing or other such activities. Flu is usually contagious for about 24 hours before symptoms begin to show, so many people do not even know they need to take extra precautions against spreading infection.
Complications. Aside from the virus itself, influenza may cause secondary infections such as eye and ear infections. Dehydration becomes an important issue, as the disease is often accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea, combined with a loss of appetite. Bacterial pneumonia ranks among the more dangerous complications. Possibly the worst complication of influenza is its tendency to exacerbate other medical issues — including congestive heart failure, respiratory disorders such as asthma, and diabetes.
Treatment. Most often, the primary concern during an outbreak of the flu is to manage symptoms and prevent spread of the disease. Getting plenty of rest, slowly sipping fluids and occasionally taking over-the-counter medications to dull the persistent muscular aches associated with influenza are generally sufficient. If you’re in a high-risk group, your doctor may opt to give you a medication specifically designed to fight flu, which may shorten the duration of the disease.
Prevention. The best prevention for the flu is to get vaccinated before the flu season (period when the virus is most active) every year. Some have hesitated to get vaccinated due to fears of actually catching the disease from the shot itself; however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states, “The viruses in the flu shot are killed (inactivated), so you cannot get the flu from a flu shot.” Instead, the shot may produce mild flu-like symptoms for 24 to 48 hours after receiving the shot. If you become infected, try to stay away from other people throughout the course of the disease and for several days after symptoms have cleared. Also important to note is that the flu vaccine is not approved for children under 6 months old or for those with an immune deficiency. If you’re unsure, discuss it with your doctor before getting the vaccine.