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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.