Influenza, commonly known as ‘The Flu’, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. These infect the nose, throat, and lungs. The flu viruses are believed to be spread via airborne droplets produced when infected individuals cough, sneeze, or talk. The virus may also be transmitted through touching a surface that is contaminated with the virus, then touching one’s own mouth, nose, or possibly eyes. Influenza is a more serious illness than the common cold, and there is a potential that medical attention may be needed. Complications of the flu can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infection, sinus infection, and the worsening of chronic conditions such as heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.
Influenza viruses can be unpredictable but are likely to be moderately severe even if the infected individual is healthy to begin with. However, for those who are unhealthy to begin with, the infection has the potential to be fatal.
The virology of Influenza is an interesting topic. The Influenza viruses are a group of RNA viruses that have a very high rate of mutation. The mutation rate of the virus is caused by rapid change in viral genetics produced by antigenic drifts. ‘Antigenic drift’ is a sudden large change in the virus genetics which allows the virus to infect a new host species quickly and overcome protective immunity any individual host might have developed to the virus previously.
This is big reason behind the semi-frequent emergence of flu pandemics. These strains are often of animal origin, such as bird flu or swine flu.
Who is at risk
The risk factors that predispose individuals to an infection of the Flu Virus are the same as those that increase the risk of contracting the Common Cold (age, seasonal variation, weakened immune system).
The major difference here is that for those individuals who fall into the ‘high-risk’ group, influenza can become severe and even fatal. This group includes those who suffer from:
- Chronic Bronchitis
- Cystic Fibrosis
- Heart Disease
- Chronic Kidney Disease
- Chronic Metabolic Disorder (e.g. Diabetes)
Individuals who are:
- Immunocompromised (due to disease or medical treatment such as chemotherapy)
- Senior Citizens (especially those residing in health care facilities)
- Infants and Young Children
Flu symptoms use usually more severe than cold symptom and are likely to come on much more rapidly – within the duration of a day, or even a few hours. Symptoms will begin approximately 2 to 3 days after the infection originally occurred.
Influenza symptoms are very similar to that of the Common Cold, though some of the symptom typically present themselves to a greater or lesser extent. Symptoms that are more likely to be worse in the case of a Flu infection are:
- High Temperature
- Feeling Exhausted
- Muscle aches and pains
- Sinus Pain
How long does it last?
Cases of Influenza tend to be more predictable in their length than cases of the Common Cold. The Flu will normally last for the duration of about a week, though you are likely to feel tired or ‘out of sorts’ for much longer.
How Serious is the Flu? How Should I Treat It?
As you have gathered by this point, the Flu is a much more serious viral infection than the Common Cold.
In general, the Flu can still be treated at home without medical attention. People with the flu are advised to take plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Alcohol and Tobacco use should also be avoided (as always). If necessary, pain killers can be taken to relieve the headaches and muscle pains associated with the flu.