Influenza, more commonly known as the flu, is a virus that affects birds and mammals, including humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 36,000 Americans will die from flu-related causes this year and nearly 200,000 will be hospitalized for complications. A vaccination for influenza is available seasonally and is especially recommended for children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with a compromised immune system.
The influenza virus is usually transmitted through the air or in bodily fluids, such as blood and saliva. A person might also become infected after coming into contact with a contaminated surface. Because the virus can be rendered inactive by soaps and detergents, frequent hand washing is highly recommended to decrease the risk of contracting and spreading the flu. Influenza is also inactivated by sunlight and disinfectants such as hand sanitizers.
Upon entering a host, the influenza virus will bind to and enter cells found in the throat and nasal passages. At this point, the cells will begin to self-replicate and disperse to other areas of the body, spreading the virus. Once this occurs, an infected person will begin to display symptoms typical of the flu, such as fever, muscle aches and general fatigue.
Symptoms will usually arise within one to three days of contracting the infection and will develop very suddenly. These symptoms will generally dissipate between four and seven days after first appearing, granted that no flu complications occur. Humans infected with the influenza virus, but not yet displaying symptoms, will still be extremely contagious and can pass the virus onto others. It is because of this that hundreds of thousands of people contract the flu each year.
The influenza virus can lead to complications such as dehydration, sinus infections, and bacterial pneumonia, and may aggravate chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes.Young children, pregnant women and adults older than the age of 50 are at the highest risk of experiencing flu-related complications and are urged to receive influenza vaccinations. Serious symptoms that require medical attention include: high fever, difficulty breathing, chest pains and coughing up blood. Obtaining an antiviral drug within 48 hours of noticing flu symptoms will greatly reduce the chances of flu-related complications occurring.
Because the initial symptoms are extremely similar, many people will confuse influenza with the common cold. Those infected with the flu will experience a sudden, high fever and muscle aches, which are symptoms that will be absent when suffering from a cold. Unlike the common cold, anti-viral drugs show effectiveness in treating early stages of the influenza virus.