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What To Do About Flu



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Each winter, millions of people suffer from the "flu." For most people, the best treatment is a few days of bed rest, aspirin for fever, and plenty of water, fruit juice, soft drinks, and other liquids.

Flu-the short name for influenza-is a viral infection of the nose, throat, and lungs. It is usually a mild disease in healthy children, young adults, and middle-age people. However, flu can be life threatening in older people and in people of any age who have chronic illnesses such as heart disease, emphysema, asthma, bronchitis, kidney disease, or diabetes.

When you have the flu your body's ability to fight off other infections is lowered and other more serious infections can occur, especially pneumonia. It is very important for older people to prevent flu, because treating it can be harder as people age. You can prevent flu with a shot. People age 50 and older need to get a flu shot every year.

It is easy to confuse a common cold with the flu. But, a cold usually doesn't cause a fever - the flu does. Also, a cold causes a stuffy nose more often than flu does. Overall, cold symptoms are milder and don't last as long as the flu.

The flu spreads quickly from one person to another. Because of this, people used to think the flu was caused by the "influence of the stars and planets. In the 1500's, the Italians called the disease "influenza," their word for influence.

Flu symptoms can differ from person to person. Some people have no obvious symptoms. Often, however, people with the flu feel weak, develop a cough, a headache, and a sudden rise in temperature. The fever can last from 1 to 6 days. Other symptoms include aching muscles, chills, and red, watery eyes.

Complications of Flu
The flu is rarely fatal. But while your body is busy fighting off the flu, you may be less able to resist a second infection. Older people and people with chronic diseases have the greatest risk of developing these secondary infections. If this second infection is in the lungs such as pneumonia it can be life threatening. Pneumonia is one of the five leading causes of death among people 65 and older.

The symptoms of pneumonia are similar to the flu but are much more severe. Shaking chills are very common. Coughing becomes more frequent and may produce a colored discharge. The fever will continue during pneumonia and will stay high. Pain in the chest may occur as the lungs become more inflamed.

Sometimes pneumonia-an inflammation of the lungs-is caused by flu virus. More often it is the result of bacteria. Bacterial pneumonia is usually treated with antibiotics, such as penicillin. Antibiotic drugs, which kill bacteria, are very effective if given when you first get pneumonia.

One of the most dangerous complications of pneumonia is the body's loss of fluids. Your doctor will prescribe extra fluids to prevent shock, a serious condition caused by inadequate blood flow.

What Causes Flu?
Scientists discovered in the late 30's and early 40's that flu is caused by viruses that enter your system and begin to multiply rapidly. When there are too many viruses for the body to fight off, you get the flu.

The flu can be passed easily from one person to another. When someone infected with the flu coughs or sneezes, droplets with the virus may reach another person, entering their body through the nose or mouth. There, the viruses can multiply and cause flu.

Vaccination is the most common form of prevention. The vaccine available today is very effective.

Because older people may have complications from flu, many doctors suggest they get a flu shot each fall. A low fever or redness at the injection site are possible side effects of the shot. For most people the danger from getting flu and possibly pneumonia is greater than the danger from the side effects of the shot. One exception is people who are allergic to eggs; flu vaccines are made in egg products and may cause serious reactions in people who have such allergies.

Preventing flu is hard because the virus changes all the time and in unpredictable ways. The virus this year is usually slightly different from the virus last year. That's why flu shots are good for only 1 year.

You also can get a shot to prevent pneumococcal pneumonia. This is the type of pneumonia that most older people get. The shot has few side effects and you only need to get it once. It is covered by Medicare. If you haven't had the pneumonia shot (or if you aren't sure), ask your doctor.

The usual treatment for the aches and pains of the flu is to take aspirin, drink plenty of liquids, and stay in bed until the fever has been gone for 1 or 2 days. Call your doctor if the fever lasts; this may mean a more serious infection is present. An antiviral drug, amantadine, also is recommended to prevent and treat many types of influenza, particularly in high risk people.

Scientists continue to look for ways to prevent and treat the flu. In the meantime, the Public Health Service's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices encourages people 65 and older and others with chronic illnesses to get a yearly flu shot.

For More Information
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has prepared the brochure Flu. For single copies, write to the NIAID, Building 31, Room 7A50, Bethesda, MD 20892.



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