WHAT IS THE FLU?
-Influenza, the flu, is a family of viruses that attacks the respiratory system: nose, throat and lungs. Flu viruses share the same DNA but differ enough so they are categorized in three major types: A, B and C. Among these, enough subcategories come and go that it drives manufacturers of flu vaccines nuts.
The organism is so primitive that a manufacturer can make an effective vaccine and in the midst of the flu season, or before it starts, the virus mutates into a new scourge. When scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decided on this year's vaccine, they thought last year's dominant flu strain would return. Instead, a new strain has emerged, so the vaccine doesn't protect against it as well.
Variety C is the mildest. A and B can kill. Some varieties, such as swine flu, can jump between animals and people; some varieties only infect people. They're too small to see in a microscope, but close up they look like noodles.
Only the flu is the flu. Colds often get blamed for and even resemble the flu; medical tests can distinguish between the two. In general, the flu is characterized by a high fever, extreme fatigue, headache and severe aching. Cold sufferers are more apt to just have a stuffy nose, sore throat, mild cough and mild fatigue.
-Most people catch the flu by inhaling the aerosol of someone else's cough or sneeze. Less often it's from touching a contaminated surface.
-If you get the flu, only the immune system can kill it. Medical science can't cure a virus-any virus. A flu shot and the growing use of nasal mist vaccines are preventions; they get the immune system ready to fight the flu. Antibiotics are useless against the flu.
-The flu can be contagious one day before a person shows symptoms and for a week after symptoms appear. Children are contagious for longer periods-sometimes days longer. It is possible for a person to have the flu, have no symptoms but still spread the virus. Doctors say that's unlikely-but not impossible-because if a virus isn't strong enough to flatten the carrier, it won't be strong enough to flatten someone else.
-If you get the flu, rest, drink plenty of liquids, don't smoke or drink alcohol, and take acetaminophen (Tylenol-type drugs) to help relieve symptoms. "Get a lot of rest and don't get dry," said Dr. Cora E. Orphe of St. Anthony's Medical Center. "After that, you just have to tough it out."
-Do not give aspirin to a child or teen who has the flu without checking with your doctor first. Use aspirin-free types of medications (such as Tylenol) for fever, aches and pains. Children with the flu who take aspirin are at risk of developing a serious illness called Reye's syndrome.
-Flu victims generally recover in about two weeks. You may suffer from body aches, fever, coughing, sneezing, dizziness and melancholy. Once you recover, you won't ever get the same strain of flu again. If your recovery doesn't start within a week to 10 days, you might have something other than the flu.
-See a doctor if your temperature stays above 100.5 degrees for more than three days.
-Those most at risk of deadly complications are people age 65 and older, and people with chronic medical conditions. The current variety of flu appears to be attacking very young children more than usual.
-The flu can make chronic health problems, including asthma, heart conditions and other illnesses, worse.
-Flu often gets blamed for life-threatening complications that attack after the flu sets in: pneumonia, worsened asthma, bronchitis and so forth. Often, patients think an antibiotic they get is for the flu when it's really for other illnesses.
SOME GENERAL INFO
-In North America, the major flu season is the winter, although cases occur year-round. This season seems to have started two months early. Cases began showing up in September. February is traditionally the heaviest flu season.
-There's no such thing as stomach flu. Vomiting, diarrhea and nausea are caused by bacteria, parasites and other viruses. While the flu may make your body vulnerable, influenza only attacks the respiratory system.
-About 10 to 20 percent of the U.S. population (30 to 60 million people) will get the flu this year. Around 36,000 will die. An additional 114,000, maybe more, will be hospitalized. This season's special problems promise to increase those averages.
-In 1918-19, Spanish flu killed about 500,000 people in the United States, and roughly 20 million to 50 million people worldwide. Most people died within the first few days; more died later of complications. Almost half of the people who died were young, healthy adults. In 1957-58, Asian flu killed about 70,000 people in the United States. In 1968-69, Hong Kong flu killed about 34,000 people. The Hong Kong variety of influenza is most common today.
Sources: Dr. Cora E. Orphe, pediatric emergency room, St. Anthony's Medical Center; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(c) 2003, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.