As the leaves change color and the mornings become crisp, an old nemesis of mankind makes a comeback— the flu.
Influenza is a virus that has been around a while, making people sick before “virus” was a known entity. Every year millions around the world get sick with this virus, and thousands die.
This year as we grapple with COVID 19, it is important refresh our knowledge about the flu and how you can protect yourself from both diseases.
What is influenza?
Influenza is an RNA virus that belongs to a different family of viruses than the coronavirus. RNA stands for ribonucleic acid. It delivers genetic instructions to the cell to help the virus multiply in the body.
There are four different types of influenza viruses-but human infections are mostly caused by Influenza A and B. The flu virus primarily attacks the respiratory system, starting off in the cells lining your nose and mouth, and then quickly making it to the lungs. In vulnerable individuals, this virus can cause a nasty case of pneumonia.
Influenza is a tricky customer that keeps on evolving ever so slightly each season. This prohibits the human immune system from forming a “lasting memory” of the virus so there is no ready defense once the new strain shows up.
The symptoms can range between mild congestion in nose and sinuses, with low fever, and body aches-to full blown pneumonia and respiratory failure and shock.
So how bad is the flu?
There is no doubt that this disease causes a LOT of damage around the globe. Given the widespread nature of the disease and variability in data reporting, true estimates of disease burden are difficult to get. According to ESTIMATES published by organizations such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), show that annually 200,000 to 500,000 people around the world die as a result of influenza and related diseases. Closer to home, the CDC estimated about half a million Americans required hospitalization and about 34,000 of those died due to influenza and related diseases during 2018-2019 flu season.
When is flu season?
The flu virus is present and circulating all through the year, but the activity and disease peak during fall and winter, when people stay indoors, and there is not a lot of fresh air ventilation. In US, December to February are historically months with peak flu activity. Flu season in Southern Hemisphere is typically April through September.
How does one catch flu?
The disease spreads from person to person. When an infected person coughs, sneezes and talks, droplets full of the virus settle in the noses and mouths of nearby people, and infect them. Less often, you can get the flu by touching an infected surface with your hands and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes.
People are contagious from about 24 hours before and 2-3 days after the start of flu symptoms.
Who is at higher risk of getting sick?
- People over 65
- People with chronic diseases such as diabetes
- People with chronic respiratory diseases, including asthma and COPD
- Pregnant women
- People with weakened immune systems
How can you protect yourself from getting the flu?
The same steps that protect you from COVID-19, help protect you against the flu: