What causes the flu?
Every year, 5 to 20% of Americans become sick with the flu. This illness is caused by a highly contagious family of influenza (“flu”) viruses that live in human respiratory droplets and are transmitted from person to person through the air and on surfaces that have been touched by individuals with the flu. Flu viruses can live outside the human body for up to 48 hours. They cause inflammation and irritation of the respiratory tract as well as infection that can travel through the blood stream, producing symptoms that include fever, headache, body ache, fatigue, cough, runny nose and sore throat.
Flu viruses are constantly mutating, which makes it tricky for our immune systems to recognize and kill them quickly. For this reason, new vaccines must be developed each year to take into account emerging strains of the virus and teach our immune systems how to target the current season’s invaders.
How can I reduce my risk of getting the flu?
Because the flu has no cure, the best “treatment” is to avoid getting it in the first place. The most important ways to avoid coming in contact with flu viruses include:
Why do I need a new vaccine each year?
Since flu viruses change their protein “coats” each year, scientists have to develop new vaccines that can teach the immune system how to recognize new viral strains. Researchers keep a close eye on new flu mutations that develop across the world and customize vaccines to protect us from the strains that are most likely to infect people in the U.S. in a given year.
Can vaccines cause the flu?
No, flu vaccines contain no live virus and cannot cause the flu. However, people sometimes mistakenly believe that they caught the flu from the flu shot because the vaccine takes 10 to 14 days to take effect. People who are exposed to the flu virus in the 10 to 14 days before their immune systems are prepared to fight the illness might confuse the timing of the flu infection with the flu vaccine.
When should I contact a healthcare professional?
Although the flu can be a life-threatening disease, most cases can be managed with comfort measures, including over-the-counter (OTC) symptom relievers, without needing to contact a healthcare professional. However, it’s important to recognize when you or a loved one has a potentially serious case of the flu. I like to think of flu symptoms in terms of colors of increasing concern: green is for common, non-concerning symptoms; yellow is for people who are at higher risk for severe symptoms; and red requires immediate consultation with a healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about symptom severity or feel that you or your loved one could be at risk for serious complications, of course you should always consult with your healthcare provider. Here is my summary of flu risk levels:
Green – You probably don’t need medical intervention if you are a generally healthy person between the ages of 6 months and 65 years. Symptoms are mild to moderate: low grade fever, achiness, runny nose, dry cough, fatigue – improving within a week to 10 days.
Yellow – You should consult a healthcare professional for symptoms that seem more severe than expected and for fevers that last longer than 3 to 5 days. This especially goes for pregnant women, babies less than 6 months old, adults over age 65, people with compromised immune systems (such as cancer, HIV, auto-immune disease), people with diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, chronic kidney or liver disease and nursing home residents.
Red – You should contact a healthcare provider right away for symptoms including: delirium (not acting/speaking normally), difficulty breathing, chest pain, shortness of breath, bluish or purplish lips, high fevers lasting for more than 3 to 5 days, fainting, inability to hold down food or fluids. Signs of dangerous dehydration include yellowish or leathery skin, decreased urination and confusion. Sometimes children will have no tears when they cry.
What are my OTC treatment options for the flu?
While OTC medications are designed to make recovery from the flu more comfortable, they cannot cure the illness or shorten its course. Symptom relievers fall into four general categories and can be customized to your or your loved one’s particular needs:
Always follow instructions on the Drug Facts label to make sure you and your children take the right dose of medicine and be sure to use the dosing device that comes with the product. Remember to check the active ingredients contained in each OTC formulation (if you take more than one at a time) because they may contain duplicate drugs that could lead to inadvertent overdosing. Only take a medicine with ingredients that treat your specific symptoms.
In Conclusion: Take Home Tips
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