FOCUS ON HEALTH
By Heather Aspinall
Influenza (often called the flu) is an infection of the nose, throat and lungs that is caused by influenza viruses. In North America, although infections can occur at any time of the year, most infections occur during the fall and winter months, with peak activity occurring from December to February. The severity of the flu season varies from year to year. However, each year the infection causes a huge burden on the health and well-being of people, resulting in an estimated 12, 200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths in Canada. Worldwide, the flu causes an estimated one billion cases of illness, 3 – 5 million cases of severe illness and 250,000 – 500,000 deaths.
Symptoms of the flu can range from mild to severe and complicated. Severe illness occurs particularly for people at higher risk of flu-related complications. These include young children especially those under six months old, persons 65 years and older, pregnant women (the longer the pregnancy, the higher the risk), residents of nursing homes and other chronic care facilities and people with certain medical conditions such as heart, lung, blood and nervous system disorders, cancer or other conditions that weaken the immune system, diabetes, kidney disease and morbid obesity. Complications may include bronchitis, pneumonia, respiratory failure, ear and sinus infections and worsening of chronic medical conditions.
The flu is very easily spread from person to person, even before signs and symptoms appear. When an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, small droplets containing the virus are released into the air. These droplets can be possibly inhaled into the lungs or can land in the nose, mouth and eyes of another person, or on surfaces which are then touched by another person and rubbed into the eyes, nose or mouth.
Signs and symptoms usually appear within 2 days after being exposed to the virus, but can range from 1 to 4 days. Common signs and symptoms include sudden onset of fever and chills, cough, runny nose, nasal congestion, sore throat, headache, muscle or body ache, and fatigue. Young children may experience nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Most people recover from the illness in seven to ten days.
The majority of healthy people who get the flu do not need medical treatment. However, if you are at high risk for complications and develop symptoms, get medical attention as soon as possible. If you are not high risk but develop severe symptoms such as shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fever lasting more than 3 days, bloody or coloured mucus, you should also get medical attention. Your healthcare provider may prescribe antiviral drugs that help to treat the illness, shorten the duration of illness and decrease the chance of serious complications. Antiviral drugs are not antibiotics. They work best if taken within 2 days of the appearance of symptoms, but may still work if started later.
Act to prevent the flu
You can protect yourself, your loved ones and others around you by the taking the following actions:
- Get the flu shot, particularly if you are at high risk for developing complications of the flu, or spreading the infection to someone who is at a high risk for having complications. Vaccination helps to prevent the flu, as well as severe illness and serious complications. The vaccine is free for all Ontarians and is widely available at doctors’ offices, pharmacies, and community clinics.
- Keep your hands clean. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Ensure that enough product is used to cover all the surfaces of the hands and fingers. Rub the hands together until all the product evaporates. Teach children how to wash their hands properly.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth to provide the virus an entry into your body.
- Do not cough and sneeze directly into your hands. Use tissue to cover your cough or sneeze. Then dispose of it immediately and clean your hands. If no tissue is available, cough or sneeze into the bend of your arm (sleeve sneeze).
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched and shared surfaces such as doorknobs, remotes, light switches, toys, phones, and keyboards. Do not share articles such as linens and utensils used by someone who is sick. Wash these items with soap and water before use. The flu virus can survive on surfaces for up to 24 hours. Heat, as well as alcohol-based, chlorine-based and detergent-based products, hydrogen peroxide, and iodine-based antiseptics will kill flu viruses.
- Keep your immune system strong. Eat healthy, exercise and get plenty of rest to help your body to fight infections.
- Stay at home and avoid contact with others until after 24 hours after your symptoms have resolved. if you are sick. An infected person can spread the virus to others from one day before symptoms appear until five days after. People with weakened immune systems and children may be able to spread it for longer periods. Avoid contact with people who are sick with the flu.
The flu is serious business. It is ranked in the top ten leading causes of death in Canada and results in significant disruption in the everyday lives of many Canadians every year. Do your part to protect yourself, your loved ones, your community and others.
(Heather Aspinall is a communicable disease specialist.)