Influenza, more commonly known as the flu, is an extremely contagious respiratory infection caused by influenza viruses that affect the nose, throat, and sometimes lungs of an individual. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that each year in the United States, the flu results in 31.4 million outpatient visits, 200,000 hospitalizations, and between 3,000 and 49,000 deaths. Just like any illness, focusing on prevention rather than finding the cure to flu symptoms and complications is a much safer option.
As you head into the flu season, it’s helpful to know the symptoms and risks of the flu, and most importantly, how you can best prevent it.
Recognize Flu Symptoms Early
Identifying the flu from other infections that share similar symptoms (such as sneezing, stuffy nose, sore throat, and cough) can be challenging. Prior to medical testing, people often confuse the flu for a common cold and vice versa.
One of the flu’s defining factors is that it hits abruptly, whereas a cold appears gradually. Influenza is often accompanied by fever, chills, cold sweats, and headaches, which are rare symptoms with colds. In addition, a dry, persistent cough, dehydration, loss of appetite, muscle weakness, aching joints, and fatigue are symptoms more unique to the flu. If you or a loved one are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, there are a couple of things you can do to avoid spreading the flu to others.
- Ask your doctor for an antiviral to lessen the intensity and shorten your bout with flu.
- Stay at home and avoid contact with others, especially if you have a fever.
- Remain hydrated to help your respiratory system turn the mucus into a thin liquid.
- Inhale steam or add moisture to the air with a humidifier to ease the coughing and general congestion.
- Treat your body aches with over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
Learn If You Are At Risk
Anyone can get the flu, but some people are more susceptible and can suffer severe complications including:
- Children under 5
- Adults older than 65
- Pregnant women
- Individuals with weakened immune systems
- Obese individuals with a body mass index (BMI) over 40
- People with chronic illness such as anemia, liver disorders, diabetes, asthma, and heart disease
If you fall into this high-risk group, it’s important to understand your risk factors, as your flu can quickly turn into a more severe illness. The emergency warning signs differ based on a person’s age. The primary emergency signs for children include trouble breathing, inability to eat, not waking up or interacting, a fever with a rash, and having no tears when crying. Adults with flu sickness also have trouble breathing, as well as sudden dizziness, confusion, severe vomiting, and pressure in the chest or abdomen.
If you or a loved one have flu sickness, visit the emergency room immediately. Flu sickness can turn into flu-related complications that range from mild cases of sinus or ear infections to life-threatening cases of pneumonia, sepsis, multiorgan failure, or inflammation of the heart, brain, or muscle tissues.
How To Prevent Getting The Flu
The most effective way to prevent getting the flu is to get a flu shot. The flu vaccination is designed to protect you from the common influenza virus strains of that season by releasing antibodies into your system. According to the CDC, healthy adults who get vaccinated decrease their likelihood of getting the flu by 70% to 90%. In 2012-2013 alone, 45% of the U.S. population got vaccinated, which prevented an estimated 6.6 million flu-related illnesses.
While nothing completely guarantees you will avoid the flu this season, obtaining your flu shot is the first step and best preventive option. Additional tips to decrease your likelihood of contracting the influenza virus include:
- Keeping your distance from people who are sick
- Washing your hands regularly
- Not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth
- Remaining hydrated, eating nutritious food, and getting adequate sleep
- Disinfecting commonly touched surfaces, such as countertops, doorknobs, cell phones, and computers
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