Flu season in the United States can be a horrific time for many people. Children and the elderly are the most susceptible to the flu but otherwise healthy adults can also easily contract the disease. Flu season can start as early as October but generally cases of the disease peak around January and February.
There are some misconceptions about what the flu actually is. Flu, short for influenza, is an easily spreadable viral infection that affects the nose, throat, and lungs. Many people use the term flu for a variety of conditions not all of which are comparable. Some people will mistake a cold for the flu but the absence of a high fever is the differentiating factor. People with the flu also feel achy all over, weak, and tired.
The stomach flu, on the other hand, isn’t really a diagnosable condition at all. What people refer to as the stomach flu is generally a form of gastroenteritis. Symptoms for this condition include vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps that do not occur in patients with influenza. There are a number of bacteria and viruses that can cause what is commonly referred to as the stomach flu including salmonella or norovirus.
The flu proper is a respiratory condition and needs to be treated accordingly but there are also ways to prevent the spread and contraction of the flu.
Causes and risks
The primary way to contract the flu is to inhale the flu virus. It is easily contractible and can spread quickly among individuals who have not prepared to avoid it. Sharing utensils or drinks with someone who is carrying the virus is one of the most typical methods for getting it as is shaking hands or touching door handles.
The Huffington Post recently published this article about what to avoid in the office to prevent the spread of the flu. These include:
- Keyboard and computer mouse
- Copy and fax machines
- Elevator buttons
- Coffee machines
The workplace is a great incubator for flu germs as the virus is spread so easily between people. With offices buttoned up tight to keep out the winter cold there is nowhere for the virus to go. Workers are encouraged to wash their hands regularly, avoid shaking hands during flu season, and keep disinfectant wipes available for desks, phones, and other shared surfaces.
How to avoid flu this season
The CDC recommends three primary actions to avoid the flu during the entire season.
- Get a flu vaccine: While the vaccine may not encompass all of the possible forms of flu viruses that are spread, it does cover the most common. Everyone should be able to get a flu shot but it is most critical for the very young and the very old as well as individuals with chronic respiratory conditions, such as asthma.
- Prevent the spread of germs: There are everyday actions that people can take to stop the spread of flu like the suggestions above. Other suggestions include avoid contact with sick people, cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough, wash your hands, avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, and clean surfaces that may have come in contact with flu germs.
- Seek treatment if you become infected: In a blog post coming soon we will describe the details of how to treat the flu. Many people just wait out the virus and suffer with the symptoms rather than seeking treatment but this can cause additional complications.
Recent studies on preventing the flu
There have long been concerns about flu vaccines and their overall safety. Any vaccine has risks but the benefits will largely outweigh those apprehensions.
During the previous flu season which began in late 2013 and lasted through February of 2014 studies showed that the most severe cases of the flu reported were among young unvaccinated adults. Duke University Hospital noted that this past year’s flu season showed that previously healthy young people in their 20s had the highest levels of hospitalizations in their medical system. Some of these cases included the H1N1 virus which was the cause of a pandemic in 2009. Individuals who were vaccinated, even among high-risk groups, have a better chance of not getting a case of the flu that requires hospitalization and advanced treatments.
In September a study published by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology indicated that children previously believed ineligible for the flu shot aren’t actually at risk from the vaccination. Children with egg allergies had been previously excluded from the vaccination which could prevent them from contracting the flu. However, the trace amounts of egg in the vaccine are not considered a problem for these children, according to experts. This is most important among children with asthma which often goes hand in hand with other allergies such as those to eggs.
The University of Lincoln made a startling announcement in their publication earlier this year by suggesting that the flu vaccine could actually reduce the risk of stroke. Patients who received the flu vaccine were 24% less likely to have a stroke. It appeared that this risk was lessened the earlier in the flu season the patients received the vaccine. While the correlation still needs more research to understand completely, it is some positive news for individuals who get their flu shot annually.
The flu is really no fun.
The best case scenario for someone who gets the flu is that they suffer from fever, aches, pains, and coughing for several days or even several weeks. In the worst case a high-risk patient may require more interventional medical treatments or hospitalization to get the symptoms under control. Of course, while it is important that you prevent the illness from happening through the injection or by cleaning your environment regularly, it is equally as important to maintain a healthy lifestyle in order to keep your immune system ready to fight off infections should they happen. A holistic health approach takes all of these factors into account.
How do you prevent the flu during flu season?
Image by Sarah Laval via Flickr