Many people commonly and incorrectly confuse influenza (the flu) with the common cold. Differentiating a cold from the flu by symptoms alone can sometimes be difficult or impossible, but in general, people with the flu get sick more suddenly, look much sicker, and feel much weaker than if the ailment were a common cold.Higher fever, body aches, extreme tiredness, and dry cough are more often symptoms of the flu, whereas runny or stuffy nose are more often associated with common colds.
- The common cold is a mild infection frequently caused by viruses other than the influenza virus.
- Flu is an acute infection of the airway tract in the nose and throat that can sometimes spread down into the lungs. It is the most frequent cause of acute respiratory illness and can affect people of all ages. It occurs every year mainly in late fall and early winter and in a widespread fashion, affecting many people of different ages at the same time. The peak season for the flu in the northern hemisphere is from November through March.
- Some also confuse the flu illness with the term stomach flu. The latter is an illness associated with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea and can be caused by bacteria and viruses other than the influenza viruses. It is a stomach illness, whereas the flu is an illness of the respiratory system.
- About 5%-20% of people in the United States get the flu every year, and more than 200,000 are admitted to a hospital for complications related to the flu. Each year, from 3,000 to as many as 49,000 Americans die from these complications. Most of these deaths occur in those older than 65 years of age.
Three types of influenza viruses exist. Types A and B cause epidemics of severe respiratory illnesses known as “the flu,” and type C causes a mild illness not associated with epidemics. Type A is divided into different subtypes based on the chemical structure of the virus. The H1N1 swine flu virus is a type A influenza virus. Type B is not divided into subtypes. Both type A and type B are responsible for the seasonal outbreaks of flu.
- Outbreaks occur more frequently in the winter months. Many factors may play a role in this seasonal pattern:
- The virus survives for longer periods indoors in winter because the relative humidity of indoor air is very low in comparison to the outside air.
- The virus may stay suspended in the air for prolonged periods and thus infect others by being inhaled. The virus droplets can also infect by landing on sensitive body areas such as the eyes, nose, or mouth.
- In winter, humans tend to be indoors more and thus have closer contact with each other, which makes it easier for the virus to spread.
- Flu outbreaks are classified as epidemics (occurring in a set geographical area) or pandemics (a worldwide occurrence). A flu pandemic can occur when a new influenza A virus emerges against which there is very little immunity already in the human population. Because there is little immunity, the new virus can spread from person to person very easily and can sicken more people. In 2009, a pandemic influenza strain began circulating called “novel” H1N1 or swine flu.
- Influenza is a highly contagious disease. The virus is spread when you either inhale infected droplets in the air (spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes) or when you come in direct contact with an infected person’s secretions (for example, by kissing, sharing of handkerchiefs and other items, and through use of objects such as spoons and forks). Touching smooth surfaces, such as doorknobs, handles, and telephones, are other ways to transfer the virus to your hands, which may then contact the nose or mouth where the virus gets absorbed.
- A person with flu is contagious for up to seven days after the onset of the illness, although the virus can be detected in the secretions up to 24 hours before the onset of symptoms. Thus, an individual can transmit the virus one day before symptoms begin.
- In young children, the virus can still be spread in the secretions into the second week of illness.
Flu Symptoms and Signs
A sudden increase in the number of school-aged children sick at home with flu-like illness may indicate the arrival of flu season. This outbreak is soon followed by similar infection in other age groups, especially among adults.
- Symptoms usually come on suddenly.
- Fever (usually high)
- Severe aches and pains in the joints and muscles and around the eyes
- Generalized weakness
- Ill appearance with warm, flushed skin and red, watery eyes
- Dry cough
- Sore throat and watery discharge from the nose or nasal congestion
- Vomiting or diarrhea is sometimes seen, particularly in children.
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