Influenza, also known as the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. Flu 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 the elderly, 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.
The spread of the flu virus is unpredictable, and its severity varies from one season to the next. The spread of the virus is affected by many things, such as the specific strand of flu virus, the quantity and timeliness of flu vaccines, the number of people 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 infected persons cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can travel up to 6 feet. 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 begin. While some people can be infected with the flu virus and not have any symptoms, most symptoms begin one to four days after the virus enters the body.
In order to prepare for the flu season, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that everyone six months and older get the influenza vaccine annually. It is especially important for pregnant women, persons with asthma, diabetes, chronic lung or heart disease, and those over 65 years of age 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 season can begin as early as October. Many doctor’s offices are encouraged to begin vaccinating their patients as early as August. There are two 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 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. High fever caused by an infection early in pregnancy can lead to birth defects.
If you are pregnant and have any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately:
• 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 recommendations to prevent contracting the influenza virus. The first and most important is to get vaccinated each year. The second recommendation is to avoid close contact with people who are infected. If you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect yourself from the spread of the virus. 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 yourself 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, being physically active, managing stress, drinking plenty of fluids, and eating 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 with locations in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach. For more information, please call 463-1234 or visit www.atlanticobgyn.com.