Every winter, like clockwork, the flu returns. It infects millions of us — nearly 5 to 20 percent of the U.S. population alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) [source: CDC].
The flu is a respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. The flu is not the same as a cold, although they share many of the same symptoms. Flu symptoms can include any or all of the following:
- Body aches
- Runny nose and/or congestion
These symptoms, although uncomfortable, are generally not dangerous. But the flu also weakens the immune system, leaving it vulnerable to more serious infections. High-risk individuals in particular are susceptible to serious complications, such as:
- Bacterial pneumonia
- Sinus problems and ear infections (primarily in children)
- Worsening of preexisting conditions, such as asthma or diabetes
The flu may also be referred to as “strain A” or “strain B.” After the flu virus was first identified in the 1930s, scientists classified it into three different strains: A, B and C. Type A is the most common and most severe form of the flu. Type B is milder and less prevalent and type C viruses typically don’t cause large-scale epidemics.
The flu is highly contagious and it is spread primarily by coughing and sneezing (which people who have the flu tend to do a lot of). Every time you cough or sneeze, you release tiny droplets of fluid into the air. If some of those droplets land on the nose or mouth of a person standing nearby, that person is likely to get as sick as you are, usually within one to four days. You can also spread the virus if you touch something (like a doorknob or table) after you’ve sneezed or coughed into your hand.
If you have the flu, you’re not just contagious when you have symptoms. You can pass along the virus one day before you start sniffling and sneezing, and you can keep passing it along for seven days after you start sniffling and sneezing. Children can be contagious even beyond the seven days.
Avoiding the Flu
Experts say the best way to avoid catching the flu is to practice good hygiene during flu season. Here are a couple of tips:
- Wash your hands throughout the day with soap and warm water.
- Avoid anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
If you do get sick, you can avoid infecting others if you:
- Stay home until you’re feeling better.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue whenever you cough or sneeze.
- If you have to sneeze or cough into your hands, wash them thoroughly afterward with warm water and soap.
We strongly urge our community to receive the flu shot every year to help in the prevention of spreading this virus.