With recent news headlines that convey the prevalence of influenza in our community right now, it stands to reason that you may be seeing ways to protect yourself against this virus. While not all strains are deadly, most strains are aggressive enough to be debilitating in a way that common colds simply aren't. Here's what you need to know about the flu:
How can I tell apart a bad cold from a flu?
With a cold, the most common symptoms are a congested or runny nose, sore throat and sneezing. Coughs are hacking and usually productive. Symptoms like fevers, aches, and chills are less common with colds. If they are present, they are mild. With the flu however, there is always a fever, as well as aches and chills. Extreme fatigue is likely to occur as well. The onset of symptoms can take place quite suddenly, spanning three to six hours. Coughs are dry and unproductive, and sore throats are uncommon. That said, you may have a sore throat, or other additional symptoms to those listed as common flu symptoms, if you have developed a secondary illness on top of the flu. This is actually quite common, as the immune system is already compromised. So, for example, it is often the case that someone who has a particularly bad flu will also have something like bronchitis on top of that.
How is the flu transmitted?
The flu is highly contagious. An adult with the flu is infections from one day before their symptoms show, up to seven days after they appear to be sick. Children have an even longer period of contagion. Flu symptoms will usually manifest themselves between one and four days after infection takes place. Unfortunately, this means that people can infect others before they even know that they are sick. In rare cases, a person can be infected with the virus and never have manifest symptoms. Such a person may also spread the infection.
The flu is transmitted through droplets. What this means is that when people cough, talk, or sneeze, they produce very tiny droplets that carry the virus in them. These droplets can travel as far as six feet, which means you don't need to be very close to a person in order to catch their flu. These droplets find their ways into mouths and noses of those in the same room, and are sometimes inhaled into their lungs. Additionally, touching common surfaces is another way to transmit the virus.
What can I do?
Currently, the best way to protect against the most virulent strains of influenza is to go for a flu shot. This will not give you protection against every strain of flu that you might possibly catch in a given season, but they are formulated to protect against the most dangerous strains of the season so that you do not develop life threatening illness as a result of the flu.
In addition to vaccination, frequent hand washing is one of the most important practices in preventing illness. Additionally, try to avoid areas where you know infected persons will be. If you yourself are sick, protect others by staying home. To prevent contagion in a single household, washing dinnerware in a dishwasher will be sufficient to kill germs.
If you do become infected, you should see your doctor. Your doctor may be able to prescribe anti viral medications (which are different from antibiotics) and those could speed up your recovery significantly. Seeing your doctor is also important in order to determine that you do not have a secondary infection. You could require antibiotics if that is the case.