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What is flu? Should I get a vaccine? Understanding the facts about flu-Not

Well Bostians, we are heading into that time of the year when the mornings are crisp, a little frost on the ground and the return of our old friend known by all as flu. In this article we will talk about flu, its name origin, some history related to flu and current treatments.

Flu season in the United States occurs in the fall and winter. While influenza viruses circulate year-round, most often, flu activity peaks between December and February, but activity can last as late as May. In usual fashion, let’s start off with the definition of flu. Influenza (proper name), flu (commonly known) is a highly contagious viral infection of the respiratory passages causing fever, severe aching, and catarrh (ke’ tar- excessive discharge from the nose or throat), and often occurs in epidemics.  The origin of the word influenza is derived from mid-18th century Italian, literally “influence”, from medieval Latin influentia.  It was applied specifically to an influenza epidemic which began in Italy in 1743, later adopted in English as the name of the disease we today call flu.  As a bit of interest, here is influenza in multiple languages; Danish – indflydelse, Finnish – influenssa or tautiin, French – grippe, antigrippal; Latvian – gripas and Welsh – ffliw. Not sure how to pronounce all of them, but it certainly tells us that everyone around the world is familiar with the illness and annual flu season. Then there is the whole grammar issue and how to correctly discuss influenza.  Is it “the flu” or just “flu”? Not to fall off into the weeds, as you know I can, but both are correct according to the English Language Learners website.  Brits tend to say “flu” and Americans “the flu.”  Just a bit of trivia in case you have ever wondered.

Moving onto the actual viral disease and signs/symptoms of which there are many.  The primary symptoms of flu are fever (most flu cases but not all), malaise (a general feeling of discomfort), runny nose/postnasal drip (catarrh), sneezing, hard chills, body pain, sore throat, and cough. Once flu is in full swing, you will typically have almost all of these symptoms at the same time, which will certainly make you feel miserable, as all who have had flu will certainly attest.

In order to better understand influenza, we need to quickly discuss more in-depth what causes influenza. There are four types of influenza viruses: A, B, C and D.  Flu in humans is caused by influenza viruses of Class A, B, and C. Human influenza A and B viruses cause seasonal epidemics of disease almost every winter in the United States. Type C infections generally cause mild illness and are not thought to cause human flu epidemics. Type D is primarily related to cattle and are not known to infect or cause illness in humans.  Next, it is believed that flu viruses spread mainly by tiny droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths (gross) or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes.

On average, up to 20% of the U.S. population gets flu each year, which results in upwards of 31.4 million outpatient visits each year. This percentage includes symptomatic and asymptomatic influenza cases.  Symptomatic cases represent 8% of the 20% total annual flu cases in a given year and not surprisingly occur in adults age sixty-five (65) and over. 70% of the symptomatic population results in hospitalization and 58% percent of the hospitalizations end tragically in death. Complications of flu can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.  Which further explains why the 65 + age group is so at risk. They are typically more medically complex and have what the healthcare industry calls co-morbidities (the simultaneous presence of two or more diseases or medical conditions in a person).

Most of the time, flu goes away without treatment.  Taking over the counter (OTC) medications can help relieve symptoms.  Self-care includes drinking plenty of fluids, eating healthy foods, getting plenty of complete rest and practicing good hygiene.  Bed rest has proven to help in a faster recovery.  Flu can last up to five to seven days. The best way to prevent seasonal flu is to get vaccinated every year. There are many reasons to get an influenza (flu) vaccine each year. Flu vaccination can keep you from getting sick with flu and can reduce the risk of flu-associated hospitalizations each year. Vaccination is an important preventive tool for people with chronic health conditions, such as cardiac complications and diabetes.  There are some misconceptions about flu vaccines. Many ask the question, “can the flu vaccine give me flu? The answer is no, the flu vaccine cannot cause flu illness.  Flu vaccines given with a needle are made with either inactivated (killed) viruses, or with only a single protein from the flu virus.  The nasal spray vaccine contains live viruses that are attenuated (weakened) so that they will not cause illness.  For those who choose to not take a flu vaccination, if you get sick with flu, there are antiviral drugs that may be a treatment option.  When used for treatment, antiviral drugs can lessen the symptoms and shorten the time you are sick by 1 or 2 days. They also can prevent serious flu complications, like pneumonia. If you get sick and choose to take antiviral drugs, remember to take everyday precautions to protect others while you are sick. Limit contact with others as much as possible to keep them from becoming infected.  Wash your hands often with soap and water and clean commonly touched surfaces which may have become contaminated with germs with disinfectant. Stay at home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone and follow referenced self-care measures, such as bed rest and drinking plenty of fluids.

With flu season approaching, we have options to consider: to vaccinate or not vaccinate. It is everyone’s choice, with pros and cons for each. I hope this article provides you with good, solid information that allows you to make the best informed choice for this fall. The Nurse.

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