Myth or Medicine
Flu, influenza, the bug. No matter what name it goes by, the result is the same. Misery in the form of fever, coughing, body aches, headache, and fatigue.
Anyone can get the flu. In fact, about 35 million Americans do every year. Most will fully recover in a week or two, but some people develop life-threatening complications like pneumonia. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in an average year roughly 114,000 people suffer complications from the flu that result in hospitalization, and as many as 36,000 people die.
Complications can happen to people of any age. Those with chronic medical conditions, people age 65 years and older and very young children are most at risk.
There's no cure for the flu. In some cases, antiviral medications can reduce the severity and shorten the duration of flu symptoms by one or two days if taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. These medications may also be used to control outbreaks and prevent the spread of infection, especially in people who can't be given flu vaccine but are at high risk for developing complications. Most people simply drink plenty of water get plenty of rest and take pain relievers or cough medications to relieve symptoms.
Although people often use the term "flu" to describe any kind of mild illness that has flu-like symptoms, the seasonal or common flu is a distinct viral illness with specific symptoms, and it tends to occur at a particular time of year-late fall and winter in the Northern Hemisphere.
Flu vaccines have helped to make flu epidemics much less serious. They work about 70 to 90 percent of the time in healthy adults, either preventing the flu or making symptoms less severe. In elderly or chronically ill people, the flu vaccine may be less effective in preventing illness than it is in preventing serious complications and death. Since flu viruses change form every year, new vaccines are produced to combat whatever strains are anticipated.
You may have heard the terms pandemic flu and avian flu (also called "bird flu").
Seasonal flu, pandemic flu and avian flu are not the same.
Outbreaks of seasonal flu follow predictable seasonal patterns. It occurs annually, usually in winter, in temperate climates.
A pandemic is a global disease outbreak. A flu pandemic occurs when a new form of the flu emerges for which people have little or no immunity. This new form of the flu often spreads rapidly and is usually resistant to any flu vaccines developed in the past. See the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services article, How Does Seasonal Flu Differ From Pandemic Flu for more information.
Avian flu is a unique strain of flu. It is a type of flu virus that occurs naturally among wild birds, but domesticated birds may become infected through direct contact with infected birds or through contact with surfaces or materials that have been contaminated with the virus. Normally it is not spread to humans. However, on occasion, a virus subtype develops the ability to cross the species barrier. That's what happened to cause the recent outbreak of avian flu in humans. And it has been one of the most deadly to cross the barrier with symptoms that have included severe respiratory distress, pneumonia and other life threatening complications. See the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services "Fact Sheet on Avian Flu" for more information.
- Symptoms of flu are similar to those of a bad cold – runny nose, sore throat and cough – but in addition, people with the flu usually experience headache, fever, muscle aches and fatigue.
- Flu spreads easily from person to person. Coughing, sneezing and even just breathing help spread the flu virus.
- If you have the flu you can spread the virus before you even realize you're sick. Many people will not experience symptoms of the flu for up to five days after exposure.
- Neither antibiotics nor penicillin will cure the flu.
- Over-the-counter medications may relieve symptoms of flu. The National Institute for Allergies & Infectious Diseases recommends acetaminophen (Tylenol) for children; aspirin or acetaminophen for adults. Decongestants, cough suppressants, and use of a humidifier can also provide symptomatic relief.
- The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports the flu vaccine is usually 70 to 90 percent effective for combating the flu.
- The CDC recommends that people start getting vaccinated in October or November.
- Because the strain of flu that affects people the most changes every year, a flu vaccine must also change every year to protect people against new strains or the strains most likely to cause illness each year.
Avian flu ("bird flu")
- The deadly strain of influenza virus currently found in Southeast Asia is known as the H5N1 strain. It can pass from birds to humans, but cannot yet pass from human to human.
- Experts fear that if the H5N1 virus mutates to a form that does pass from human to human, it could set off an international pandemic.
- There is no vaccine yet available for the H5N1 virus, but several companies in the U.S. and Europe are racing to develop one.
- A pandemic is a global disease outbreak.
- A flu pandemic occurs when a new form of the flu emerges for which people have little or no immunity. This new form of the flu often spreads rapidly and is usually resistant to any flu vaccines developed in the past.
Ask Your Doctor
This list of questions is a good starting point for discussion with your doctor. However, it is not a comprehensive list.
- Am I at high risk for catching the flu and/or developing complications from the flu?
- Should I get a flu shot?
- Should I consider the nasal mist vaccine instead of a shot? Why or why not?
- When should I get a flu shot?
- If I shouldn't get a flu shot, should I take antiviral medication?
- Are there potential side effects to antiviral medication?
- How will I know if I have the flu or another viral infection?
- If I think I'm getting the flu, should I take antiviral medication? If so, how fast can I get it?
- If I get the flu, what are the signs of complications or secondary bacterial infections?
- Under what circumstances should I call you?
Key Point 1
Seasonal influenza can cause serious health problems and death, especially for those with underlying health concerns.
The flu is nothing to be sneezed at. While most people recover without problems, sometimes the flu leads to serious complications, like bacterial pneumonia, bronchitis and dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.
Influenza is a major cause of illness and death in the United States and leads to as many as 36,000 deaths and 114,000 hospitalizations in an average year.
People who are at the highest risk for experiencing complications include:
- People who are 65 years old or older (although some medical professionals quote 50 as the target age) even if they're active and in excellent health. Flu is the fifth leading cause of death among the elderly.
- People with chronic health problems like diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or lung conditions or suffer from weakened immune systems.
- Women who are pregnant or plan to be during flu season.
- Children between 6 months and 5 years old, with an emphasis on children under age two. They are as likely to be hospitalized for flu as people over age 65.
- Children and teenagers who are on aspirin therapy.
- People who live in institutions such as nursing homes.
Of course, people who aren't considered to be at high risk can also experience serious complications.
Don't take chances. Call a doctor when:
- An infant under age 3 months has a fever of 100.4° F (38° C) or higher.
- A child age 3 months or older has a fever of 104° F (40° C) or higher that does not come down after 2 hours of home treatment.
- An adult's fever is high or prolonged or does not being to go down after 5 days. It's common for adults with the flu to have high fevers [up to 103°F (39.4°C)] for 3 to 4 days. Persistent fever can be a sign of a secondary infection in your body that should be treated.
- A child or adult has labored, shallow or rapid breathing or chest pain.
- A child or adult has a fever and a severe headache or stiff neck, seems confused or is hard to wake.
- Symptoms improve but get worse again, including a fever that goes away and then returns.
- Someone who has other health problems (lung, heart, or kidney disease or diabetes) or is being treated with chemotherapy comes down with the flu.
- Someone who has a long-term respiratory illness such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) comes down with the flu.
- A child or adult:
- Vomits repeatedly and can't keep fluids down
- Experiences severe pain when swallowing
- Experiences a cough that doesn't go away for more than 2 to 3 weeks
Key Point 2
Flu vaccines do work, but are not 100 percent effective in preventing seasonal influenza and will not protect us against pandemic flu. But getting a flu shot might lessen the severity of the flu and keep you from infecting people who are at high risk of suffering deadly, flu-related complications.
Flu viruses are constantly changing. Generally, new influenza virus strains circulate every flu season, so the vaccine is changed each year. When the viruses in the vaccine and circulating viruses are similar, the flu vaccine is about 70 to 90 percent effective in preventing flu among healthy adults.
Flu shots are recommended for all those at risk (see Key Point 1), plus anyone who shares a household or cares for someone at high risk of complications from flu. But, if people who are "not on the endangered list" also got flu shots, life could be a whole lot better for thousands of us during flu season.
Why doesn't everyone get a flu shot? There are lots of myths that make people hesitate.
|Flu shots don't work||In an average year, the flu vaccine is about 70 to 90 percent effective in preventing flu among healthy adults. See more about this topic below.|
|Getting the flu vaccine can give you the flu||You may coincidentally get sick with a non-flu virus that has flu-like symptoms or you may get the flu after a shot because you were actually exposed to the flu virus prior to building sufficient antibodies. The most likely side effect of getting a flu shot is a sore arm. The alternative nasal spray vaccine doesn't cause the flu, but it does prompt an immune response in your nose and upper airways as well as throughout your body.|
|Flu vaccine is dangerous|
There are some people who shouldn't get a flu shot, but for most people, the risk of a rare allergic reaction is far less than the risk of severe complications from influenza. People who shouldn't get a flu shot are:
Additionally, people assume they won't be able to get a flu shot because of vaccine shortages. That's been the case over the past couple of years, but the Centers for Disease Control expects there will be enough vaccine to meet demands this year.
A flu shot gives you the best chance for avoiding the seasonal flu. But why can't it guarantee that you won't get sick?
First and foremost, no biological product is 100 percent effective. Plus there are many complexities when it comes to flu viruses. Influenza viruses change over time. Each year the vaccine is updated to include the viruses that are most likely to circulate in the upcoming influenza season. There are usually more types of flu out there than are covered by the vaccine. They can vary by region. They can even mutate, taking on new characteristics during the season. It takes time to produce vaccines, so a new one can't be instantly produced when a new strain of flu shows up.
The flu vaccine may be less effective in preventing illness than it is in preventing serious complications and death in elderly or chronically ill people. These at-risk people may not produce enough of an antibody response or it may not last the entire flu season. In other words, the flu vaccine tends to work best in the people who need it the least.
What about avian (bird) flu or a pandemic flu? An annual shot for seasonal flu won't protect you from either, but it will reduce the risk of simultaneously contracting both seasonal flu and another variety. Scientists are working on ways to prevent the spread of the H5N1 subtype of avian flu. In the face of a pandemic outbreak, countries will most likely take measures such as border closures and travel restrictions to limit its spread.
Key Point 3
Other than a vaccination, there are practical steps you can take to prepare for seasonal flu and pandemic flu that could prevent you from becoming ill, lessen your symptoms, or keep you from infecting others, including washing your hands regularly, using tissues and avoiding crowds.
You can minimize your risk of developing the flu. However, before you think about the things that can help, you should be aware of the things that won't help. You cannot prevent the flu or make yourself better faster by taking:
- Antibiotics or penicillin. Neither of these drugs will treat viral infections. However, if you get a bacterial infection as a result of the flu, they may be helpful.
- Large doses of vitamin C, zinc, or other vitamins and minerals. None of these supplements prevent or treat the flu.
These steps may help reduce your risk of getting or experiencing complications from the flu. They include:
- Avoiding close contact with anyone who is sick or displaying symptoms of the flu.
- Asking people you live with to use tissues when coughing or sneezing.
- Washing your hands thoroughly several times a day, particularly when out-of-doors and in contact with foreign objects or other people.
- Not touching your eyes, nose and mouth with your hands.
- Keeping your immune system bolstered so your body is better able to fight off any infection.
- Eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Get plenty of exercise
- Get at least 8 hours of sleep every night
- Take a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement to support your health and well-being
- Wiping down surfaces of your home periodically with antibacterial agents.
Some people who cannot get flu shots (see Key Point 2) may use antiviral medications to prevent the flu. These medications may also reduce the length of the illness if they are given no more than 48 hours after the first symptoms appear.
Above all, be kind to other people. Stay home if you feel sick. Don't be a carrier.
Conduct an off-site search for Flu information from MedlinePlus. These up-to-date search results are based on search terms specific to Second Opinion Key Points.