- What is influenza?
- What causes influenza?
- How does influenza spread?
- How do I know if I have flu, or just a cold?
- What are the symptoms of influenza?
- Is influenza serious?
- How long does a bout of influenza last?
- What are the benefits of prescription influenza treatment?
- What is swine flu?
- When should I seek medical attention?
Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is a highly contagious viral infection. Symptoms of influenza include a fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches and tiredness. Flu is more severe than a common cold, and can be a serious concern for the very young or elderly, and those with other underlying conditions.
Flu is caused by three strains of the same virus - influenza A, B and C. Types A and B are responsible for the epidemics of respiratory illness that occur almost every winter and are often associated with increased rates of hospitalisation and death. These viruses mutate and change rapidly, causing new strains of the virus to spread every few years. Type C is less common and causes only mild symptoms.
The influenza virus is usually passed from person to person by airborne transmission (i.e. sneezing or coughing). It can also be spread by contact; the virus can survive on surfaces for a short time. If you come into contact with an object with virus present, and then touch your month or nose, you could contract the virus.
Influenza can be dangerous for people with asthma or similar lung problems, the elderly or the very young, so it's important to know the difference between the flu and a heavy cold. Flu starts very suddenly whilst a cold will come on gradually. A cough is normally the first symptom of the flu, with no stuffiness, whilst a cold usually starts with a blocked or runny nose or sore throat.
Influenza will make you feel unwell in your whole body, whilst a cold will only affect the nose, throat, sinuses and upper chest.
Influenza typically presents an abrupt onset of symptoms; these symptoms include
- Fever (usually high) and chills
- Sore throat and coughing
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Body aches
Diarrhoea and vomiting also can occur, but are more common in children
For healthy people, influenza is typically a moderately severe illness but most people are back on their feet within a week. For people who are not healthy to begin with, influenza can be very severe, even fatal. These people are more vulnerable to flu symptoms and complications can occur, most of which bacterial infections, such as bacterial pneumonia.
The flu normally lasts for about three to seven days. However, certain symptoms may remain for up to three weeks after. Complications, such as bacterial pneumonia, sinusitis or otitis media, can prolong the condition.
A prescription anti-viral treatment is the only way to significantly reduce the symptoms of flu. Treatments such as Tamiflu help to stop the virus from spreading, and if taken within 48 hours of you first experiencing symptoms, can reduce the duration of illness by a day and a half or more. Tamiflu can also be used as a preventative treatment, if you come into contact with someone who has the virus.
Swine flu is a particularly virulent form of influenza, caused by the H1N1 strain of the virus. The first cases were in Mexico 2009, but the virus spread quickly to other countries, and was declared an epidemic by the World Health Organisation in June of that year.
The swine flu threat seems to have been overestimated, with most people experiencing only worse flu symptoms than before. Nevertheless, it did and still does pose a threat to risk groups; to date the virus has caused almost 18,000 deaths worldwide.
Most doctors donít encourage you to arrange an appointment unless your condition is serious. This is in part because most people can fight the virus effectively themselves, but also because during the winter Ďflu seasoní a large number of people will be effected, and it would be difficult to see everyone.
You should only see a doctor if:
- You belong to the risk groups and think that you have influenza
- You have a cold that is more than seven days old
- You have a constant fever that stays above 40 degrees
- Your ears hurt
- You have a headache that worsens when you move
- Your mucous is bloody
HealthExpress offers a free consultation service. If you arenít sure whether you should visit a doctor, we can help you to diagnose your condition and recommend treatment for you.