Wednesday, December 14, 2005
What is "the flu"? Should I be concerned? What happens if I get the flu?
Influenza, "the flu", is a highly contagious viral illness marked by fevers, muscle aches, cough, headache, and fatigue. The infection is generally self-limited and lasts only two to five days on average, although it can persist for more than a week. Although influenza is considered a respiratory illness, the symptoms can vary from person to person. Some patients may experience primarily cold-like symptoms, while others may have fever and muscle aches and little respiratory involvement.
So what's the big deal...well, those at high risk may develop complications of the flu, possibly leading to death. As a healthy college student without medical problems you are just as likely of contracting the flu, however it is very unlikely that you would develop complications.
Influenza is caused by the influenza A or B virus. Outbreaks of influenza occur worldwide, mainly during the winter season. Once introduced to an area, influenza spreads quickly, typically affecting 10 to 20 percent of the population, although outbreaks affecting more than 50 percent have occurred. Influenza virus is spread person-to-person via infected respiratory secretions. Because flu spreads easily, attack rates can be particularly high among individuals living in an institutionalized setting such as schools or long term care facilities.
As noted, symptoms usually improve over two to five days, although the illness may last for a week or more. Occasionally, weakness and fatigue may persist for several weeks. The treatment of influenza generally focuses on relieving symptoms and includes:
- Rest until the flu is fully resolved, especially if the illness has been severe
- Fluids to maintain adequate hydration
- Acetaminophen (such as Tylenol and other brands) to relieve fever, headache, and muscle aches. (Aspirin, and medicines with aspirin as an ingredient, should be avoided)
- Cough suppressants can be used if the cough is particularly bothersome, but in most cases, the cough is self-limited and does not require specific therapy.
Antibiotics are not prescribed unless the patient develops a bacterial complication of the flu such as bacterial pneumonia, ear infection, or sinusitis. Antivirals, (ie Tamiflu) can be prescribed to shorten the course if taken within 72 hours of onset of symptoms.
For more information see the CDC's (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) website: www.cdc.gov/flu/keyfacts.htm
James Gardner, MD