It is the time of the year when sneeze and cough in your vicinity sends a horrifying shudder down your spine; what if you also catch the flu? If you are looking for the early flu symptoms as well as influenza treatment and prevention, we have a solution for you here.
Many people can’t tell the difference between a bout of flu and the common cold. In this article, we show you everything you need to know about influenza.
What is influenza?
Influenza (aka flu), is a viral disease that usually strikes between October and May and may last for 3-5 days. It may also be followed by fatigue for about 3 weeks. The flu virus causes similar symptoms to the common cold like coughing, fever pains and general aches, as well as a runny or blocked nose.
However, the flu symptoms are much more severe than a typical cold.
For most people, the flu is an inconvenience that subsides in a few days, while it can lead to visits to the hospital, health complications and even death for some. Globally, 5%-10% of adults and 20%-30% of children get the flu each year.
3-5 million of these cases are severe, leading to 250,000-500,000 deaths, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
According to history, there have been several major pandemics caused by the flu throughout history. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, the 1918-1919 pandemic, known as “The Great Pandemic,” infected 20%-40% of the worldwide population and about 50 million people died because of it. This pandemic was called “Spanish flu” because it was believed to have originated from Spain.
The most recent pandemic occurred in 2009-2010 when a new form of the influenza strain H1N1 surfaced. The virus is named “swine flu” because it is similar to a virus found in pigs (not because it can be contracted from eating pork or pigs).
The difference between a cold and the flu
Bad cold symptoms and flu symptoms can appear to be quite similar, making it tricky to tell them apart. Here are a few ways you can differentiate between the severity of the symptoms:
Cold can make you feel run-down but you can go about your daily tasks without too many problems. The flu, on the other hand, can make you unable to lift your head off the pillow.
Progression of illness
A cold tends to begin gradually, with perhaps runny nose or scratchy throat for a few days before it worse gradually over the course of a week. The flue progresses far more rapidly, so you should expect full-blown symptoms within several hours.
Pains and aches
Cold symptoms tend to be confined to neck up: that is, a cough, sore throat and running nose. If it is flu, you’ll likely feel muscle aches on top of the symptoms. You might also experience a headache you can’t shift.
How does flu spread?
The flu can be transmitted from one person to another. It is called “seasonal flu,” because it is more common to catch in the winter months. However, people can catch it all year round. The flu virus spreads through sneezing and cough.
We spend more time indoors during the winter months, so we have close contact with each other. The warmer indoor environment is also more humid, allowing the virus to live longer than it would outside.
Causes of flu
The main 3 types of influenza virus that causes illness in people are called A, B and C. Influenza A and B viruses cause seasonal epidemics of disease almost every winter in the US, while according to the CDC, influenza C causes only mild respiratory symptoms and is not thought to cause an epidemic.
The influenza A virus is broken down into subtypes, and influenza A and B are broken down into strains for classification.
Note that there are many types of flu. “stomach flu” is not a type of influenza but gastroenteritis, which is an inflammation of the lining of the intestines caused by parasites, virus or bacteria. Also, avian influenza (H5N1, bird flu) is a flu virus that typically affects birds alone.
According to the CDC, it is rare for humans to contract it and just about 700 cases of bird flu in humans have been reported from 15 countries since 2003. It is most likely contracted from birds and not from human to human like most types of influenza.
H7N9 is another rare bird flu, which first appeared in China people in 2013. Since the virus surfaced, it has affected several hundred humans per year in China, but there was a rise in cases from 2016-2017 when 766 human cases were reported in China. The H7N9 virus doesn’t seem to spread easily between people.
Unlike bird flus, influenza A and B viruses can spread from one person to another because they are contagious. People can contract influenza A and B from the sneeze or cough of an infected person. In fact, research confirmed that the virus can spread just by breathing through minute particles known as aerosols. Other research found that such infectious particles can travel up to 6-feet after being exhaled by a sick person.
Early flu symptoms
Common early flu symptoms include the following:
- Runny nose
- Lack of appetite
- Sore throat
- Fatigue and weakness
- Dry cough
- Aching muscles and joints
- Fever of over 380C
- Shivering and chills
Influenza treatment and prevention
In case you end up catching flu, the WHO says you should recover within one to two weeks without needing medical treatment. To fight off the flu as quickly as possible, take the following measures:
- Get plenty of rest
- Take more fluids, such as water, soup or juice
- Treat individual symptoms i.e. if you have a fever, or you are aching, take an over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen and aspirin. Decongestant drops and cough syrups may also relieve the symptoms, but contact your doctor before taking over-the-counter medication.
- See a doctor if the symptoms persist after a week.
Getting the flu jab is the number one measure you can take to prevent flu, especially if you are in a high-risk group. Try to get the vaccination by October every year.
Other than flu jab, you can protect yourself with the following:
- Stay away from anyone that is sneezing or coughing
- Wash your hands regularly, especially after using communal surfaces like toilets and door handles, as you can easily pick the virus and transfer to your nose or mouth.
Risk factors of influenza
Groups of people at high risk of flu include:
- People with diabetes
- People with asthma
- Pregnant women
- Anyone over the age of 65
- All primary school children
- Children aged 2 and 3
- Children aged 2-17 with a long-term health condition
- People who are in direct contact with unwell or elderly people, such as nurses and carers
Signs that the flu requires emergency care
- Sudden dizziness
- Persistent or severe vomiting
- Chest pain or abdominal pain
- Flu-like symptoms that appear to get better, but return with worse cough and fever.
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
- Swelling in the throat or mouth.
In children, emergency symptoms are:
- Bluish skin color
- Fast breathing or trouble breathing
- Fever with a rash
- Flu-like symptoms that improve, but then return with a worse cough or fever.
- Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
- Not walking up or not interacting
- Not drinking enough fluids.
The bottom line
Flu is not cool. If you notice early flu symptoms, get influenza treatment and prevention. If after getting treatment, symptoms still persist, visit a doctor.
If you are at a high risk of contracting flu, be sure to take the flu vaccine. Remember that the flu is caused by a virus, which means antibiotics will not be effective against it.