A Dose of Flu Facts

February 2013 Prof. Scarlet Leslie

If you have ever had the flu, you would know that it is a downright miserable experience. Fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat, headache, and overall discomfort lasts about a week (and sometimes more!).

Influenza is a RNA virus in the orthomyxovirus family. The virus primarily affects humans, pigs, horses, and birds. Perhaps you have heard of the swine flu or the avian flu? There are three types of influenza, appropriately named A, B, and C. Influenza A is responsible for the seasonal flu. You must remember the breakout of the H1N1 flu. H stands for hemagglutinin and N stands for neuroaminidase. They are markers (called antigens) on the surface of the virus that allow scientists to classify influenza A. Every year, the surface antigens change slightly, which is why there is a new flu vaccine yearly.

Generally worse during the winter months, flu season can actually last from October to April (in the Northern hemisphere). The flu is transferred from person to person through droplets in the air. The young and the elderly are more likely to have a longer course of influenza. The virus can take a lot out of the immune system, so many people tend to develop bacterial infections shortly after a bout of influenza.

There are medications available that can help shorten the length of influenza. However, they are only useful if the flu has been identified early, within two days. They are typically reserved for people who have weaker immune systems. Since the normal duration of illness is around seven days, most people must endure the entire week of suffering. The best treatment is rest! Sleep is so important when fighting the virus. Drink plenty of fluids. Warm tea and soup also help with cough and sore throat. Also, stay away from others to prevent spreading the flu.

In an ideal world, you want to avoid getting the flu altogether. Prevention is possible with the yearly flu vaccine. Yes, it is only the best guess by scientists since influenza strains change every year. No, it is not 100% effective. But, as long as your immune system is intact and you can afford it, it doesn't hurt. Okay, so maybe the shot will hurt a little bit. In the end, it is completely up to you! Would you rather get a prick in your arm or be confined to bed for a week? (Yes, yes, I am a little biased.)

February and March are important months for influenza outbreaks. Be ready and remember that the flu will be back again next year!