Influenza is a contagious viral infection that affects the respiratory tract (lungs, throat and nose). Influenza is not a serious infection in young, healthy people because their bodies are easily able to fight off the infection, although they may feel unwell for a few days. In older people, influenza can be very serious and can lead to further health complications such as pneumonia, congestive heart failure or asthma.
Some of the most common symptoms of influenza include a fever and chills, weakness, muscle aches, a runny nose and sneezing, a sore throat or cough, headaches and a loss of appetite. Depending on the seriousness of the infection, you will usually be bedridden for three to five days.
There are three main strains of influenza – types A, B and C. Hospitalisation and death are caused by seasonal epidemics of influenza types A and B, while type C influenza only usually causes relatively mild symptoms.
The influenza virus passes through the air and is spread from person to person by coughing and sneezing. It also has the ability to linger on objects for short periods, so you can contract the virus by coming into contact with a contaminated item and then touching your nose or mouth.
It's important to know the difference between a cold and the flu, as influenza can be extremely dangerous for people who have lung problems, asthma, the very young or elderly. A cold tends to come on gradually, whereas flu symptoms appear very suddenly. A cold will usually start with a runny or blocked nose, while the flu will initially involve a cough and sore throat. Influenza will classically cause your whole body to ache, unlike a cold which only affects the upper chest, sinuses, throat and nose.
The influenza vaccine is given yearly and is the most popular form of flu prevention today; it can protect you from getting the flu up to 90% of the time. This vaccine is most effective in preventing the elderly from experiencing complications of an infection. Alternatively you can keep a prescription treatment, such as Tamiflu, to hand and begin taking the treatment at the first signs of a fever or sore throat. By taking Tamiflu when you first experience symptoms of the flu, you can reduce the severity and duration of the infection. Washing your hands frequently and covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough will also help to reduce the frequency of flu epidemics.
A bout of influenza typically lasts for three to seven days although some symptoms may still be experienced for up to three weeks afterwards. As mentioned, certain complications can prolong the duration of an infection; these can include otitis media (middle ear infection), sinusitis and pneumonia.
Swine flu is a relatively new strain of the flu virus which originated, developed and spread through pigs in Mexico in 2009. The virus was spread, like other strains, through the air and through contaminated materials that had come into contact with the virus. During the outbreak many people assumed that they were more susceptible to catching the virus if they ate pork products, but this was not the case. You cannot catch swine flu from pork even if it is contaminated with the virus – it is an airborne virus. This strain of the virus took many lives during the height of the pandemic, and there was no vaccine at the time. Antiviral swine flu protection is now available, however, in the form of Tamiflu.
Avian flu is an extremely contagious strain of the influenza virus which is spread through birds and, as was recently discovered, is also spread to humans. Unlike swine flu, avian - or bird - flu can be contracted by humans who eat contaminated animals such as chicken, as well as through the air. An outbreak in South-East Asia was responsible for infecting thousands of people and was the start of a global pandemic where over half of those who contracted the disease died. Today avian flu is no longer considered a severe threat to humans and a vaccine is available to treat the virus.
Medications like Tamiflu will stop the flu virus from spreading and can reduce the duration of the illness by up to a day and a half or more, if it's taken during the first 48 hours of experiencing symptoms. Administering an antiviral influenza prescription treatment is the best guaranteed way of significantly reducing the symptoms of influenza quickly.