Influenza, more commonly known as the flu, has for most of our lives been seen as a temporary inconvenience that comes around every winter. Like an unpopular relative visiting for a brief period, we put up with it, knowing it will eventually leave and things will go back to normal.
Pandemics, though, have a way of altering our perceptions, at least for a certain amount of time. While COVID-19 isn’t the same as seasonal influenza, it’s safe to assume it will have an impact on how we view all highly communicable diseases.
So, what exactly is influenza?
Influenza is a highly contagious virus, a microbe that replicates within the cells that line our airways – which is why it can spread rapidly from person to person. When a person infected with influenza coughs or sneezes, droplets containing the virus spread through the air and land on surfaces or other people.
There are three strains of influenza that humans can contract: influenza A(H1N1), influenza A(H3N2) and influenza B.
While the flu in its various forms may be seen by some as simply an annual inconvenience, worldwide an epidemic can lead to three to five million cases, and 290,000 to 650,000 deaths each year. Influenza can be very deadly.
What are the symptoms?
It’s a common misconception that the flu is just a bad cold. This is wrong. While both are respiratory illnesses, they are caused by different viruses, and influenza is generally worse. The flu can present with sudden onset, and you might experience any number of the following symptoms:
- Runny or congested nose
- Muscle pain, body aches
- Cold shivers
- Hot sweats
A cold may present with only a runny nose and/or congestion, and generally doesn’t lead to anything serious. The flu, on the other hand, can lead to life-threatening complications, such as pneumonia and even multi-organ failure. This can happen when influenza spreads to the lungs and causes an inflammatory response throughout the body.
Complications are of particular concern for vulnerable groups, which include pregnant women, those aged over 65 years, children under 2 and anyone with underlying medical conditions.
Believe it or not, these symptoms are the result of your immune system
That’s right. The fever, the cough, the runny nose – these are all caused by your immune system’s response to influenza. When you become infected with the flu, your immune system sends out an alarm that alerts your body to the invasion.
The result? Inflammation. It makes us feel crummy, but it serves a purpose. Inflammation triggers an increase in mucus production, which helps trap the virus and allows it to be expelled from the body when we cough or sneeze.
The fever caused by the inflammation also makes your body an unpleasant host for the virus (and, unfortunately, for you). And the reason why you can feel so cold when your temperature is sky high? It’s the greater difference between your body and the ambient temperature.
Thirdly, inflammation molecules can actually have an impact on infected cells, and either stop them from replicating or destroy them altogether.
What can I do to prevent influenza?
There are simple things you can do that should be a part of your daily routine, whether it’s the flu season or not. Always wash your hands when you come home from running errands, and cough into your elbow – not your hands.
And, of course, get the flu shot. The influenza vaccine is still the best way to protect yourself, even though it is not 100% effective.
In case certain rumours and myths have you worried, rest assured: you cannot catch influenza from the flu shot. The vaccine does not contain the live virus. Some people report feeling sore or tender at the site of the injection, and experience low-grade fever, headache and sometimes muscle soreness. These side-effects normally subside after one to two days.
If you feel like you have the flu soon after getting the vaccine, it’s important to remember that the vaccine can take up to two weeks to have effect. In the interim, you may have caught influenza or another respiratory virus, plenty of which are around during flu season.
So, don’t hesitate. Call us now and get your flu shot and get protected.