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Influenza, or "flu," is a caused by a virus infecting the respiratory system (nose, throat, bronchial tubes, lungs). Flu symptoms are usually more severe than those of the common cold and are more likely to affect other parts of your body. Flu also tends to come on suddenly, while colds can take a while to develop. Flu is very contagious, spreading easily from one person to the next. Most people with healthy immune systems will get over the flu within two weeks, but young children, senior adults, and people with chronic illnesses are more likely to develop complications such as pneumonia. About 35,000 people die of flu each year in the United States.
There are three types of flu viruses: A, B, and C. Type A viruses are the ones responsible for periodic pandemics (worldwide epidemics, such as the one in 1918 that killed as many as 50 million people worldwide). The avian or bird flu is a type A flu virus.
The best way to protect yourself from the flu is to get an annual vaccine (flu shot).
Influenza is caused by viruses that are spread through the air by sneezes and coughs, or by touching a surface a person with the flu has touched and transmitting the virus to your mouth or nose. Some flu viruses cause a very mild illness, or none at all. Others cause serious, widespread illness.
Since there are many types of influenza virus, and because they change over time, a new flu vaccine is offered every fall. Getting vaccinated before the flu season starts reduces your chances of getting the flu, and helps you recover faster if you do get it. You should not take the vaccine if you have an allergy to eggs, because the viruses for the vaccines are grown in chick embryos. See Risk Factors for list of people who should get the vaccine every year.
Infants and young children, as well as senior adults, are considered at highest risk of complications from flu. Other risks include:
If you are at risk for complications, you should get an annual flu shot (see Prevention).
Your doctor will probably be able to diagnose flu from a physical exam and a description of your symptoms. He or she may take a chest x-ray if there is concern about complications such as pneumonia.
The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu shot. Annual flu shots are recommended if you:
You should not receive the vaccine if you are allergic to eggs.
You can also cut your risk of flu by washing your hands frequently during flu season.
Bed rest and drinking plenty of fluids are usually enough to treat flu. Mild over-the-counter pain relievers and fever reducers (such as acetaminophen or Tylenol, and ibuprofen or Advil), can help relieve fever and muscle aches. If you are at high risk for complications (see Risk Factors), then your doctor may prescribe antiviral medications (drugs that fight the virus). They must be started within 2 days to be effective. Certain herbs, supplements, and homeopathic remedies may help some of your symptoms.
Cough medicines — cough suppressants (for a dry cough) or expectorants (for a wet, productive cough that brings up mucous) are available over the counter and by prescription.
Antiviral medications — Several antiviral medications have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat flu, although a number of flu viruses have developed resistance to some of the medications. In addition, using these medications may help contribute to other strains of flu becoming resistant. These drugs must be started within 48 hours of becoming sick to be effective. Medications include:
Because supplements may have side effects or interact with medications, you should take them only under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any supplements you are taking or considering taking.
The use of herbs is a time honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs care, under the supervision of a health care practitioner. Before giving any herbs to a child to treat the flu, talk to your pediatrician.
Although very few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic therapies, professional homeopaths may consider the following remedies for the treatment of the flu based on their knowledge and experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type. A constitutional type is defined as a person's physical, emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate treatment for each individual.
If you are in any of the high risk groups described in the Risk Factors section, be sure to call your doctor at the earliest signs of flu symptoms. The sooner you are treated, the less likely you are to develop complications.
Most healthy people get over the flu in within 2 weeks. For those at high risk, certain serious, even life threatening, complications can occur, including:
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