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Influenza (Flu)

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Influenza, also known as the flu, is a respiratory illness that affects the lungs, throat and nose. This disease can be deadly especially for the elderly, pregnant women, young children, those with chronic illness and weakened immune systems. Each year, nearly 200,000 people are hospitalized because of flu complications in the United States with nearly 23,600 people dying from the virus. This illness can develop quickly and is highly contagious. The disease can be prevented by an annual immunization.

Causes, Risk Factors and Complications

The flu is spread by droplets released when someone sneezes or coughs. Its important to constantly wash ones hands as the virus can also be caught by touching something someone infected did and then touching ones mouth, nose or eyes. Patients are contagious one day before symptoms occur and up to seven days after being infected.

Some common risk factors for contracting the flu include:

Age: Typically the very young and the elderly are most likely to contract this virus.

Work setting: Those in schools or hospitals or doctor office are most likely to be infected because of their proximity to those infected and young children.

Weakened Immune System: Those receiving cancer treatments, those who have HIV/AIDS or are taking corticosteroids for any reason are more likely to catch influenza and develop complications from it.

Pregnancy: Pregnant women are particularly susceptible, especially those in their second and third trimesters.

If the flu is not treated properly, it can lead to potentially dangerous complications. Some of these complications include: dehydration, heart or lung disease, diabetes, asthma or pneumonia. Its important to seek immediate medical attention when flu-like symptoms occur.

Signs, Symptoms and Tests

Some common symptoms of the flu include a runny or stuffy nose, headaches, fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea, sore throat, cough, fever, chills or muscle or body aches. Its important to note that not all symptoms are experienced with every case. Because it is difficult to diagnose on its own, its always a good idea to see ones primary care physician for an exam. Make an appointment immediately after symptoms are experienced as antiviral medication is most effective during the first 48 hours of infection.

Some common testing for influenza includes a nasal swab or wash. Rapid influenza tests also are great as they provide results in less than 15 minutes, while viral cultures can take a much longer period of time. Rapid tests are most commonly done during a standard physical exam.

Treatment, Drugs and Prevention

Typically, the most common type of treatment for influenza is the flu vaccine. An annual vaccination will help prevent being infected by the flu. There are also two successful antiviral drugs on the market for influenza Tamiflu and Relenza. Tamiflu comes in a pill form, while Relenza is an inhalant. These medications will reduce flu symptoms dramatically in a short period of time. Combined with rest and plenty of fluids, these prescription medicines can make flu symptoms end fast. Over-the-counter medications that include a decongestant may also be helpful.