Influenza, which is also known as the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. The flu is different from a cold. The symptoms usually come on suddenly and often include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea.
Most people who contract influenza recover in a few days to less than two weeks, but some people—such as older people, young children, pregnant women, and people with certain health conditions (asthma, diabetes, or heart disease)—will develop complications such as pneumonia, which can be life-threatening and result in death. Other complications can be bronchitis and sinus and ear infections. Influenza can also make chronic health conditions, such as asthma or chronic congestive heart failure, worse.
Unfortunately, the flu is unpredictable, and its severity can vary from one season to the next. The severity is affected by many things, such as which flu viruses are spreading, how much of the vaccine is available, when the vaccine is available, how many people get vaccinated, and how well the vaccine is matched to the flu viruses that are causing the illness.
The influenza virus can be spread through droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are up to six feet away. They then breathe these droplets into their lungs. Most people who are infected can pass the virus beginning one day before symptoms and up to seven days after symptoms begin. Young children may pass the virus for more than seven days after symptoms. While some people can be infected with the flu virus and not have any symptoms, most have symptoms starting one to four days after the virus enters the body.
In order to prepare for flu season, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that everyone 6 months and older get the influenza vaccine every year. It is especially important for pregnant women, persons with asthma, diabetes, chronic lung and heart disease, and those over 65 years old to get vaccinated. Others who live with or care for persons in these categories should also get vaccinated each year. The CDC states that the best time to get vaccinated is when the vaccine becomes available in your community.
Influenza seasons are unpredictable and can begin as early as October, and it takes the body about two weeks to make antibodies against the flu virus. Many doctor offices are encouraged to begin vaccinating their patients as early as August.
There are two different forms of the flu vaccine, nasal spray and injection. The nasal spray vaccine should not be given to women who are pregnant. The injectable vaccine is, however, a safe way to protect the mother and her unborn child from serious illness and complications from the flu.
Pregnancy lowers a woman’s immune system and therefore causes her to become more susceptible to the influenza virus, which can result in hospitalization and even death. The risk to the unborn child includes premature labor and delivery. Having a high fever caused by an infection early in pregnancy can also lead to birth defects in the unborn child.
If you are pregnant and have any of these symptoms, call 911 right away:
• difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
• pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
• sudden dizziness
• severe or persistent vomiting
• high fever that is not relieved with Tylenol or generic equivalent
• decreased or no movement of your baby.
There are seven major ways to prevent the flu. The first and most important is to get vaccinated each year. A second recommendation is to avoid close contact with people who are sick. If you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too. Third, stay at home when you are sick. This will help protect others from catching your illness. Fourth, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your arm when coughing or sneezing. Fifth, clean your hands often to protect you from germs. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub. Sixth, avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, which helps reduce the spread of germs. And lastly, practice other good health habits, such as getting plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious foods. If you are a smoker, this would be a great time to quit. Some research studies show an increase risk of influenza infections among smokers than nonsmokers.
The bottom line is that influenza is a highly contagious virus that can cause several complications in young children, older persons, pregnant women, and persons with certain chronic health conditions. The first and most important step in protecting yourself against the flu is getting vaccinated as early as possible. If you think you may have become infected by the influenza virus, seek medical evaluation as soon as possible. Finally, practice good health habits to help reduce the spread of germs as well as the influenza virus.
Melissa Waddell, WHNP, a Hampton Roads native, is a nurse practitioner at Atlantic Ob/Gyn. Please call 757-463-1234 or visit www.atlanticobgyn.com.