What Is The Flu?
Influenza ("the flu") is caused by a virus that infects the respiratory tract and is spread from person to person through coughing and sneezing. Though healthy adults under age 50 usually weather the flu well, it can be dangerous to those in certain high risk groups, potentially causing extreme illness, serious complications, or even death. Preventing the flu is important for anyone, but especially for these high risk groups.
An adult may start to experience symptoms within one to four days of being exposed to the virus. He or she may remain contagious for three to five days, though this period may be longer for those with a weakened immune system.
What Are The Symptoms Of The Flu?
Flu symptoms include:
- Dry cough
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle aches
- Extreme fatigue
Gastrointestinal symptoms are not common in adults, but children often experience:
Do I Need A Flu Shot?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines several groups of people who are at high risk for serious problems from influenza. These people include:
- Anyone 50 years of age or older
- Children between the ages of 6 months and 4 years
- Children and teens ages 6 months to 18 years old who are undergoing long-term aspirin therapy and may be at risk for developing Reye syndrome after having the flu
- Pregnant women
- People with cardiovascular or chronic pulmonary conditions (including asthma), renal disease, or hepatic, hematological, or metabolic disorders (including diabetes)
- Residents of chronic-care facilities, including nursing homes
- Anyone who is immunosuppressed, such as someone with HIV or who is on a prescription medication that suppresses the immune system
- Anyone who has a condition that may interfere with breathing or with clearing fluid from the lungs
People with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) who are taking immunosuppressive drugs fall into a high risk group. Some immunosuppressive drugs include:
- Imuran (Azathioprine)
- Neoral, Sandimmune (Cyclosporine)
- Purinethol (Mercaptopurine, 6-MP)
- Rheumatrex, Trexall (Methotrexate)
If you are taking any of these drugs, or your immune system is being suppressed by another drug, the optimum time to get vaccinated against the flu is from late October to mid-November. A flu shot takes one to two weeks to be effective. You are not protected from the flu until the flu shot takes effect.
Also, any person with IBD, even if they are not taking immunosuppressive drugs, might want to talk to a doctor about getting a flu shot. As with any chronic condition, IBD causes the body to be under stress. This makes it harder for the body to fight off both colds and the flu. After all, struggling through one major health problem is bad enough without complications from other illnesses.
Anyone who lives with a high-risk person should get the flu shot along with the high risk individual.
Is The Flu Shot Really Effective?
The flu shot does not guarantee that you will not get the flu, but it is the best prevention method available. The vaccine is reported to be 70 to 90% effective. The flu virus changes each year, so the vaccine must be changed as well. That makes yearly shots a necessity.
What Else Can I Do To Prevent Or Treat The Flu?
Besides the vaccine, the best defense against the flu virus is practicing good hygiene. Washing hands frequently will help prevent the spread of the virus through casual contact, such as shaking hands, or touching your mouth or nose after having touched a contaminated object.
There are new treatments today that can help fight the flu -- if they are administered within the first 48 hours of infection. People who feel as if they may have the flu should contact their doctors right away to receive these antiviral drugs.
It is also important to drink plenty of clear liquids (at least 8 cups a day). Over the counter analgesics (painkillers) and decongestants may help ease symptoms. Antibiotics will not help fight the flu, and they might lead to needlessly suffering through antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
Coordinating Center for Infectious Diseases (CCID). Questions & Answers: Seasonal Influenza-Associated Hospitalizations in the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 18 Sept 2006. 10 Oct 2007.
Coordinating Center for Infectious Diseases (CCID). Questions & Answers: The Nasal-Spray Flu Vaccine (Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine [LAIV]). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 19 Sept 2007. 08 Oct 2007.
Coordinating Center for Infectious Diseases (CCID). Key Facts About Seasonal Influenza (Flu). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 17 Sept 2007. 10 Oct 2007.