Every year, usually between December and May, between 5% and 20% of the population in the U.S. become ill with the flu, or influenza. This is the normal course of seasonal flu with which we have become accustomed. It can cause serious illness and even death in the very young, the elderly and other individuals with impaired resistance and chronic illnesses. For this reason, everyone should get a flu shot unless your health care provider advises you otherwise. See below for more information on getting a flu shot.
It is prudent to learn about flu prevention, get a flu shot, wash your hands often, and follow travel and public health advisories.
Pandemic is defined by the US Department of Health and Human Services as:
The worldwide outbreak of a disease, in humans in numbers clearly, in excess of normal.
In 1918, 1957 and 1968 the flu season in the U.S. was especially severe, and resulted in a much higher number of illnesses and deaths. This more dangerous form is called pandemic flu. Public health experts believe that a flu pandemic is likely to occur again in the future.
What Is The Flu?
The flu, or influenza, is a respiratory illness caused by airborne viruses that spread from person-to-person by droplets from coughing or sneezing. The period between becoming infected with the virus and becoming ill is usually 1 to 4 days. The contagious period is 3 to 5 days from the onset of symptoms. Symptoms of the flu, or influenza, are:
- Fever (up to 104 degrees) and sweating/chills
- Headache, muscle aches and/or stiffness
- Shortness of breath
- Vomiting and nausea (in children)
A cold and flu are alike in many ways. A stuffy nose, sore throat and sneezing are usually signs of a cold. "Stomach flu" is not really the flu, as there are no respiratory symptoms. Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea without the fever, cough, aching and respiratory symptoms is actually gastroenteritis, but some people call it "stomach flu." This form is caused by other microorganisms and has no relationship to true influenza.
How Flu Spreads
Flu viruses spread in respiratory droplets caused by coughing and sneezing. They usually spread from close person-to-person contact, though sometimes people become infected by touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth, eyes or nose. The virus can live for as long as two hours on surfaces like doorknobs, desks and tables.
Healthy adults, infected with the virus, may be able to infect others beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 days after becoming sick. That means that you can pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick.
How to Prevent Flu
While avian flu is not a risk to you at this time, there are several things you can do to keep from getting seasonal flu:
- Get a flu shot
When you get vaccinated, it reduces your chances of getting seasonal flu. Since the flu season can last through May, even January is not too late to get a flu shot; however, it takes 2 weeks after the shot to develop adequate immunity.
- Wash Your Hands
Hand washing is effective in preventing the flu, cold and other infectious diseases. According to the U.S Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rubbing your hands together with soap and water is one of the most important ways to prevent infection. Disease-causing germs can enter your body when your unwashed hands touch your nose, eyes, mouth, and open wounds.
- Make hand washing a habit
When soap or water is not available, please use an antibacterial hand cleaner. Choose alcohol hand rubs with 60 - 95% alcohol (usually listed as isopropyl, ethanol or propanol). Glycerol or other skin conditioning agents are helpful additives. Read the directions and use the hand rub appropriately. Never wipe the hand rub off; allow your hands to air dry. When used properly, these sanitizers reduce the transmission of disease-causing germs.
Other Ways To Prevent The Flu Include:
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth;
- Cover your mouth with tissue when sneezing;
- Stay away from others if you are sick;
- Don't go to class or work;
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
Get Help If You Are Sick
If you develop symptoms of the flu, contact your health-care provider. There may be medications to relieve your symptoms. Get plenty of rest, drink lots of liquids and avoid using alcohol and tobacco.
The flu can be debilitating, causing the person who is ill to be bedridden for extended periods. Be alert to the well being of your friends, relatives and co-workers. Those with the flu may need assistance in getting medical attention and care.
If you are at special risk from complications of flu, you should consult your health care provider immediately upon recognizing flu symptoms. Those at risk include people 65 years or older, people with chronic medical conditions, pregnant women or children.
If You Travel Internationally
If you travel to a country where avian flu is present, avoid poultry farms and open air markets where poultry is sold.
The World Health Organization (WHO), the CDC and the U.S. Department of State issue travel information, alert, warnings and announcements for public safety, personal security and health issues. Before you travel internationally please consult the sites below. WHO, CDC and State Department advisories, are updated often and may differ. When they differ, UNC recommends erring on the side of caution by following the most conservative advice. If an area has a travel advisory or warning in effect, the safest decision is not to travel unless it is absolutely necessary
Precautions For International Travelers
If you have recently lived in, or traveled from, an area where avian flu is present and you now have a fever, headache, muscle aches or respiratory symptoms, you should call a health care provider and ask for instructions.