The Scary Truth About Influenza

Flu has been one of the most devastating infections in human history. In 1918 and 1919, the flu killed 50 million people worldwide in just a few months.

Fortunately, flu seasons this dangerous are rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5 to 20 percent of Americans get the flu each year. That is 15 to 60 million people in the United States alone.

Approximately 200,000 are hospitalized because of flu complications, and 36,000 die. Many of these deaths could be prevented if people got their flu vaccine in the fall each year.

There are hundreds of possible strains of flu virus, and getting the flu once does not protect you from getting it again.

Each year scientists determine which strains of flu are the most likely for the next flu season. Then they make a vaccine to protect against those strains.

Even if you get infected with a different strain, the flu vaccine will help your body fight off the infection more quickly, and you will not get as sick.

What Is Flu?

The flu is caused by the influenza virus, a potentially life-threatening respiratory tract infection that can be prevented by getting vaccinated and avoiding exposure. Preventing the spread of influenza is everyone's responsibility.

Flu symptoms include sudden onset of high fever, dry cough, sore throat, stuffy nose and severe muscle pains in the legs and low back. People with the flu usually do not experience a runny nose, vomiting or diarrhea.

Most people with flu will feel terrible for five to seven days and then recover completely. However, the very young, elderly or those with chronic illnesses are at greater risk of developing complications that may lead to hospitalization or even death. These patients develop life-threatening complications such as pneumonia, respiratory failure or heart failure.

What Do I Do If I Get the Flu?

The most important thing any flu victim can do is to stay at home. This will help prevent spread of flu to others.

A quick call to your doctor is also important because there are medicines that will shorten the course and decrease the severity of flu symptoms, but they must be started within 48 hours of the first symptoms.

Rest, drink plenty of fluids and take acetaminophen, ibuprofen or aspirin to help with the fever and muscle aches. But never give aspirin to children with the flu because serious and deadly complications can develop.

Tylenol is a very safe medication for treating fever and pain, but high doses or even normal doses taken with alcohol can cause liver failure. Check over-the-counter medication labels to be sure that you do not take more than 4000 mg of acetaminophen in 24 hours. Ibuprofen should be taken with plenty of liquids and some food to prevent stomach upset.

How Can I Prevent Flu?

Vaccination is safe and effective. There are two kinds of vaccine: an injection and a new nasal vaccine.

The injection is made with killed flu virus and is safe for people 6 months old and older. The nasal vaccine is administered directly into the nose and is for healthy people between the ages of 5 and 49 years.

You cannot get flu from the injected vaccine. There is a small risk that people with weakened immune systems could become sick from the nasal vaccine, which is made with a weakened form of the flu virus.

Some people still get flu after vaccination, but they are much less likely to become seriously ill than those who have not been vaccinated.

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