Flu Alert: What You Should Know from the AMA Family Medical Guide
(Hoboken, NJ November 2004)-In response to the unexpected shortage of
flu vaccine this year, the American Medical Association, in accordance with
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, is recommending that
healthy individuals forgo or delay their flu shots to help ensure that high-risk
patients are vaccinated first.
But, healthy patients can still take important steps to reduce their chances
of getting or spreading the flu. In addition to preventive measures such as
frequent hand washing, covering coughs, and avoiding close contact with sick
people, learning about the flu can help patients protect themselves from getting
sick. The fourth edition of the American
Medical Association Family Medical Guide is an excellent source of
information about influenza-what it is, its symptoms, and how it is diagnosed
and treated. Below are some facts and advice you'll find in this indispensable
What Is Influenza?
Influenza, usually called the flu, is a viral infection of the respiratory
tract. The flu can spread from the nose or mouth to the rest of the respiratory
system, including the lungs. It is usually spread by touching an infected person
or contaminated surface or by inhaling infected droplets coughed or sneezed
into the air. If a bacterial infection develops in addition to the viral infection
and travels from the upper respiratory tract to the lungs, it can cause more
serious disorders, such as acute bronchitis or pneumonia. Influenza kills
about 36,000 people a year in the United States.
There are three main types of influenza virus: A, B, and C. If you have had
the flu caused by a type C virus (a relatively mild type of flu with symptoms
similar to those of a cold), you are immune to it for life. If you have
been infected with a particular strain of a type A or B influenza virus, you
have immunity to that strain only. Although both A and B influenza viruses
can produce new strains that can overcome a person's immunity, the type B virus
seldom alters itself sufficiently to do so. But the type A virus constantly
changes, and the changes are significant enough to make it look like a new virus
to the immune system. For this reason, type A viruses cause most flu epidemics
and severe outbreaks. These strains are usually named after their place of origin
(such as the Hong Kong flu).
Influenza usually occurs in small outbreaks, often in the winter. Every few
years, in unpredictable intervals, it occurs in epidemics. Two or three epidemics
caused by different strains of the virus can occur at the same time. Epidemics
die out when everyone who has been infected by a particular strain of a flu
virus becomes immune to that strain.
What Are the Symptoms?
Symptoms of the flu vary widely. You may have a fever with shaking chills,
sneezing, headache, muscle aches, and sore throat. You may then develop a dry,
hacking cough and chest pain. You will probably feel very weak. Some children
have abdominal pain and seizures. If you have no complications, you should recover
in one to two weeks, although you may still feel weak for a few weeks. If you
seem to be the only person who has the flu, you may have some other viral illness
such as mononucleosis.
See your doctor if your symptoms are severe, last longer than ten days, or seem
to have spread to your lungs (causing wheezing, shortness of breath, or a painful
cough), or if you have a chronic disease (especially a lung disorder or an immune
system disorder). You should also see your doctor if your fever lasts
longer than three or four days.
Diagnosing and Treating the Flu
Doctors can usually diagnose the flu by the symptoms, especially when they
occur during flu season in fall or winter. If you have symptoms that persist,
your doctor will examine you to see if they could be caused by another disease.
There is no cure for influenza, but you can take measures to relieve the symptoms.
Rest, stay comfortably warm (but not hot), and drink plenty of water to help
prevent dehydration. Take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as acetaminophen
or ibuprofen to ease aches and pains and help you sleep. Check with your doctor
before you use a cough suppressant or any other medication advertised to relieve
For infants and very young children who cannot blow their nose, use a bulb syringe
(available at most pharmacies) to suck the mucus out of their nose. This will
help them breathe more easily and keep mucus from dripping down their throat,
which can cause coughing and stomachaches (from swallowed mucus).
Two Words of Warning
Antibiotics are not effective against the viruses that cause influenza. Your
doctor will prescribe an antibiotic only if your influenza has been complicated
by a bacterial infection. If you are older or in poor health, your doctor may
prescribe amantadine, oseltamivir, or zanamivir if you have been exposed to
the flu virus or if you have flu symptoms. These antiviral drugs can prevent
or relieve symptoms caused by an influenza A virus.
Do not give aspirin to children or adolescents unless recommended by your
physician. It may be dangerous to give aspirin to children or adolescents
who have a fever. Use of aspirin in children has been linked with Reye's syndrome,
a rare but potentially fatal childhood disorder.
For more information about the flu, click here.
Created: 11/15/2004  - Donnica Moore, M.D.