What is flu, anyway?
Flu is short for the word influenza. It's an illness passed from person to person, or sometimes person to critter, or critter to person.
For instance, we can get flu from Aunt Mabel, or from the pig in the barn, or even from the bird in the yard, under the right conditions.
The most common way for a person to get flu is from an infected person, but pig flu and bird flu are out there.
We can get flu from any of a number of influenza germs or viruses. There are several different influenza viruses, most of which can infect us and cause flu.
How is flu transmitted?
Flu viruses are transmitted in various ways.
An infected person can cough, sneeze, or even talk near us and spray tiny infected droplets into the air. We breathe in and inhale those droplets through our nose or our mouth.
If an infected person kisses us, we can become infected.
Situations where we are physically close to the infected person and they spray us or touch us are called transmission by direct contact.
An infected person can also cough, sneeze, or talk and spray tiny droplets into the air, which then plop onto tables, or doorknobs, or other surfaces.
We come along and touch those surfaces and get the droplets on our hands. When we take our germy hands and touch our nose, or mouth, or eyes, we transfer those droplets from the surface to our body, without ever being near the infected person.
Situations where we transfer the flu germ from a surface to ourselves are called transmission by indirect contact.
An infected person can transmit the flu virus even before he or she starts to feel ill.
How many people are infected each year?
The CDC states that every year in the United States, on average:
Flu doesn't treat everyone the same.
Some people who are infected feel achy and tired, they might have a sore throat, cough, and fever. It's not uncommon to have a runny or stuffy nose. Many flu symptoms are similar to cold symptoms, which is why people sometimes mix them up.
(If you're experiencing watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, and vomiting, you don't have flu. You most likely have gastroenteritis—a viral infection of your intestines. Just as an FYI: there's no such thing as "stomach flu.")
Flu can lead to pneumonia or perhaps, in children, sinus or ear infections. It can make an existing medical condition such as asthma much worse, and one can even die from flu.
The fact that flu can take perfectly healthy individuals and kill them in a matter of days is the most confounding aspect of infection.
How do you prevent flu?
There are a couple of ways to prevent flu, although nothing you do will work 100 percent of the time. It's important to use both of these methods of prevention for the most comprehensive protection.
Keep your hands clean throughout the day.
It's amazing what our hands pick up as we go about our daily business. Germs reside on elevator buttons, doorknobs, desktops, faucet handles . . . the list is practically endless. Clean your hands before preparing and eating food, after using the restroom, after petting animals, after coming in from outdoors, after coughing or sneezing into your hands, and periodically during the day to get off the germs we all pick up.
Soap and warm water are best, and scrub your hands palm and back and between fingers for about 20 seconds. Use a paper towel to shut off the water and open the restroom door, or you'll simply reacquire those germs you just washed off.
Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. Be aware that sanitizer will kill many germs while you're rubbing it on, but once it's on and dry, your hands will once again pick up and retain germs until they're cleaned off your hands.
Keep your hands and fingers away from your eyes, nose, and mouth, as those are entry points for germs.
Immunize against flu.
The CDC recommends that everyone six months of age and older be immunized against flu each year.
We immunize yearly because the strains are usually a bit different each year. We need a vaccine that can combat the strains around during each flu season.
Check with your provider to see which vaccine is best for you and your family members. The recommendation may change a bit depending on a person's age and a few other variables.
Be aware that flu vaccines take two weeks after vaccination to kick in and start protecting you from infection.
Flu season may start in the US as early as October, and linger on through May. Get immunized just before the season starts, if possible, but if you can't get immunized early, don't just skip it. Get immunized as soon as you can, even in December. You never know how your body will react to flu. Prevention is the smart choice.
Should you use the nasal spray vaccine?
Bad news for people 2 through 49 years of age: it's back to the needle for your annual flu vaccine.
CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) advises the CDC on immunization matters, and at their last meeting, they advised against using the nasal spray flu vaccine during the 2016-2017 flu season.
The live, attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV) is one we all love because it's a simple spray up the nose. But, the data from the last three years say the spray vaccine's effectiveness isn't great. It just doesn't seem to work that well.
When the nasal spray vaccine was first licensed, data showed it to be as effective as the vaccine given in a shot. Researchers have yet to figure out why the nasal spray isn't protecting people from flu.
Current Influenza Surveillance
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