By Dr W. B. McNaull*

Seasonal influenza epidemics are annually responsible for between 3 million and 5 million cases of severe illness and between 250,000 and 500,000 deaths worldwide.

Influenza is a viral infection that attacks the respiratory system, including your nose, throat, bronchial tubes and lungs.

The flu is caused by three types of viruses — influenza A, B and C. Type A is responsible for the deadly influenza pandemics (worldwide epidemics) that strike between every 10 to 40 years.

Young children, older adults, people with weakened immune systems and those with chronic illnesses are especially vulnerable.

Once you’ve had the flu, you develop antibodies to the virus strain that caused it, but those antibodies won’t protect you from new strains. That’s why doctors recommend getting a flu shot every year to protect against new emerging strains of the virus.

The flu vaccine is safe for children six months or older.

Influenza symptoms may start abruptly and progress rapidly. Some common signs and symptoms of the flu which may include the following:

  • Fever above 38 degrees Celsius. Children with the flu tend to have higher fevers than adults have — often as high as 39 to 40 degrees Celsius.
  • Chills and sweats.
  • Headache.
  • Dry cough.
  • Muscular aches and pains, especially in your back, arms and legs.
  • Fatigue and weakness.
  • Nasal congestion.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Diarrhoea and vomiting. Although children may have these signs, diarrhoea and vomiting are rare in adults.

Treatment: If you’re young and healthy, influenza usually isn’t serious. But high-risk children and adults may develop complications such as ear infections, acute sinusitis, bronchitis and pneumococcal pneumonia.

Antibiotics: Are not effective against regular influenza but are effective against bacterial pneumonia that may develop after/during the influenza episode.

Anti-virals: In some cases, your doctor may prescribe an oral antiviral medication such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza).

These drugs work by deactivating an enzyme the virus needs to grow and spread. If taken soon after you notice symptoms, they may shorten your illness by a day or so. Both medications may cause side effects so discuss with your doctor.

In addition:

Drink plenty of liquids. Choose water, juice and warm soups to prevent dehydration. Drink enough so that your urine is clear or pale yellow

Rest up. Get more sleep to help your immune system fight infection.

Consider pain relievers. Use an over-the-counter pain reliever such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, Panadol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) cautiously, as needed.

In an epidemic situation there are steps which can be taken to prevent personal infection and help reduce spread, namely:

  • Get an annual flu vaccination. The best time to be vaccinated is September or October. This allows your body time to develop antibodies to the flu virus before peak flu season, which in the Northern Hemisphere is usually December through March.
  • Wash your hands. Thorough and frequent hand-washing (at least 30 seconds) is the best way to prevent many common infections.
  • Healthy habits. Eat right, sleep well. A poor diet and poor sleep both lower your immunity and make you more vulnerable to infections.
  • Limit air travel (especially late fall).
  • Avoid crowds during flu season.

If there is one important message for our readers then quite simply – it is vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate! — Family Medical Practice