Influenza or “the flu” is a contagious respiratory illness that usually appears as a seasonal villain just before monsoons in India. However, depending on location, it can cause problems at different times of the year too, especially in winter. The flu affects millions worldwide and has been doing so throughout history. What’s crucial about fighting this disease is understanding, it, the symptoms, causes, treatment. Only timely intervention, diagnosis and management can help one make a fast recovery.
What is Influenza?
Influenza is a viral infection caused by influenza viruses that primarily affect the respiratory system. There are two main types of influenza viruses: A, and B, which commonly cause seasonal flu epidemics around the world. Influenza A viruses are further categorized into subtypes based on their surface proteins, hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N), which play a crucial role in the virus’s ability to infect and spread.
Influenza is highly contagious and can lead to mild to severe illness or even death in vulnerable populations. The virus can mutate rapidly, leading to the development of new strains and making it challenging to predict and combat. It is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, or by touching contaminated surfaces and then touching one’s face.
Symptoms of Influenza
The symptoms of influenza can range from mild to severe, and they typically appear suddenly. Common symptoms include:
- Fever: A high fever is one of the hallmark signs of influenza and often the first to appear.
- Cough: A persistent, dry cough is a common symptom, and it can be quite bothersome.
- Sore Throat: A scratchy or painful throat is often accompanied by other respiratory symptoms.
- Muscle Aches: Generalized muscle aches and joint pain can make you feel weak and uncomfortable.
- Fatigue: Profound tiredness and fatigue are common with the flu, and they can last for weeks.
- Headache: Intense headaches are frequently reported, often associated with the fever.
- Chills and Sweating: Shivering from chills and then experiencing sudden sweats is a common pattern.
- Nasal Congestion: A stuffy or runny nose can accompany the other symptoms.
- Shortness of Breath: In severe cases, especially in individuals with preexisting conditions, shortness of breath can occur.
- Gastrointestinal Symptoms: In some cases, the flu can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, particularly in children.
The symptoms of influenza are like those of the common cold, but they tend to be more severe, with the hallmark being the sudden onset of fever. It’s important to note that some people, particularly children and the elderly, may not exhibit all these symptoms.
Causes and Risk Factors
Influenza is primarily caused by influenza viruses, with Influenza A and B being the most common culprits. The viruses are constantly evolving, and new strains emerge each year, which is why the flu vaccine must be updated annually to target the prevalent strains. H1N1 (“swine flu”) and bird flu are both subtypes of influenza A.
Factors that contribute to the spread and severity of influenza
Seasonal: Influenza is often seasonal, with outbreaks occurring during the monsoons and the winter months. The reasons for this seasonality are not entirely clear but are believed to be related to environmental factors, such as lower humidity and increased indoor crowding during colder months.
Age: Young children and the elderly are more vulnerable to severe complications from influenza. Young children may not have a fully developed immune system, while the elderly may have weakened immune defenses.
Chronic Health Conditions: Individuals with chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory diseases are at a higher risk of severe flu complications.
Pregnancy: Pregnant women are more susceptible to severe influenza and should take precautions to avoid infection.
Immune System Status: A weakened immune system, whether due to medical conditions or medications, can make individuals more susceptible to severe flu symptoms.
Vaccination Status: Being vaccinated against influenza significantly reduces the risk of infection and can lessen the severity of symptoms if infection does occur.
The difference between the flu and the common cold
There are common symptoms of the flu and the common cold like runny nose and cough. But cold symptoms are usually mild and flu symptoms can be severe and lead to serious complications. Both are caused by different viruses.
The difference between the flu and COVID-19?
Being similar, the only way to know for sure if you have the flu or COVID-19 is to get tested. Both illnesses are serious, but are caused by different viruses requiring different medication.
Effective management of influenza involves both treatment and prevention strategies. Here’s what you can do to deal with the flu:
- Rest and Hydrate: One of the most crucial steps in treating the flu is to rest as much as possible. Your body needs extra energy to fight off the virus, and rest helps conserve that energy. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids, such as water, herbal teas, and clear broths. This helps alleviate the fever and loosen mucus.
- Over-the-Counter Medications: Over-the-counter (OTC) medications can help relieve some flu symptoms. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can reduce fever and alleviate aches and pains. Some doctors might even suggest piroxicam as a good alternative for pain, fever, and inflammation. However, avoid giving aspirin to children and teenagers with the flu, as it can lead to a rare but serious condition called Reye’s syndrome.
- Antiviral Medications: In some cases, your healthcare provider may prescribe antiviral medications such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza). These drugs can shorten the duration of the flu and reduce the severity of symptoms when taken early in the course of the illness.
- Steam and Humidity: Breathing in warm, moist air can help relieve congestion and ease breathing difficulties. Taking a steamy shower or using a humidifier in your room can be beneficial. Be cautious not to make the room too humid, as excessive humidity can promote the growth of mold and dust mites.
- Herbal Remedies and Supplements: Some herbal remedies and supplements are believed to have immune-boosting properties that may help you recover more quickly. Echinacea (Kalmegh) elderberry (Kanjhi), ginger, and honey are often used to soothe sore throats and boost the immune system. However, consult with a healthcare provider before using these remedies, especially if you have underlying health conditions or are taking other medications.
While these strategies can be helpful in managing flu symptoms, it’s essential to seek medical advice if your condition worsens or if you are at higher risk of complications due to age or underlying health conditions. In severe cases, the flu can lead to pneumonia, bronchitis, or other complications that may require hospitalization.
- Vaccination: Annual flu vaccination is one of the most effective ways to prevent influenza. It not only reduces your risk of infection but also lessens the severity of symptoms if you do get sick.
- Hand Hygiene: Frequent handwashing with soap and water or the use of hand sanitizers can help prevent the spread of the virus.
- Respiratory Hygiene: Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing and dispose of used tissues promptly.
- Avoid Close Contact: If you are sick, try to stay away from others to prevent spreading the virus. Similarly, avoid close contact with sick individuals.
- Environmental Precautions: Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces regularly, such as doorknobs, light switches, and cell phones.
- Flu Myths: Be aware of common misconceptions about the flu, such as the effectiveness of antibiotics (they don’t work against viruses) and the belief that the flu vaccine can give you the flu (it cannot).
Complications and When to Seek Medical Attention
Influenza can lead to various complications, particularly in high-risk groups. Some of the potential complications include:
Pneumonia: Influenza can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to bacterial pneumonia.
Bronchitis: Inflammation of the bronchial tubes can cause coughing and breathing difficulties.
Sinus Infections: Influenza can lead to sinusitis, causing facial pain, headaches, and nasal congestion.
Ear Infections: Middle ear infections are more common in children with the flu.
Exacerbation of Chronic Conditions: Individuals with preexisting medical conditions may experience a worsening of their health during a flu infection.
Most people who contract influenzas usually find they can treat and manage their condition at home. If you are a healthy individual, following the treatment and management strategies are enough to help you recover from the flu within a week without needing to see a doctor. However, seek immediate medical attention if you experience any of the following warning signs:
• Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
• Severe chest or abdominal pain
• Confusion or sudden dizziness
• High fever that doesn’t respond to fever-reducing medication
• Severe muscle pain