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Speaking of the Flu... Influenza Virus

Typically, flu season peaks between late December and early March. So, now is the time to learn about the flu and to practice behaviors which strengthen your immune system. For healthy young adults and children, influenza (flu) is usually a moderately severe illness. With bed rest and proper self care, most people can be back on their feet within a week. Flu is a contagious disease caused by a virus. It is considered a respiratory disease, but its effects are felt throughout the whole body.

Just because youíve had the flu once doesnít mean you canít get it again. The virus that causes influenza may belong to one of three different flu virus families-A, B, or C. Influenza A and B are the major families. Within each flu virus family are many different strains. When you get the flu, your body responds by developing antibodies against the particular family and strain of virus you contracted. The following year, a new strain of the same family of virus you had appears, or a strain from another family of flu virus. The antibodies you built up to the former virus are now ineffective against this unfamiliar strain to which you have been exposed. Thus, you could get the flu again.

What to Expect from the Flu "bug":
When flu strikes the lungs, the lining of the respiratory tract becomes swollen and inflamed. Fortunately, the damage is usually not permanent as the body repairs itself. During the height of the illness, fever, chills weakness, loss of appetite and aching throughout the body occur. The throat may become sore and dry, and there may be coughing. Nausea and burning eyes can also be present. After the fever, which can quickly mount to as high as 104° and subsides after two or three days, the person with the flu is exhausted. The next few days of quiet and bed rest are needed to fully recover.

Flu can be a more complicated and even fatal illness for people who are considered at ďhigh riskĒ due to the presence of certain chronic conditions or immune system weakness or damage. Complications of flu are bacterial because the body is so weakened by the flu virus that bacteria can invade the body. Bacterial pneumonia is the most common complication of influenza. The sinuses and inner ears are also prone to painful inflammation.

Although it is possible for anyone to suffer complications of the flu, it is much more likely for people who have the following conditions:

  • Chronic lung disease such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, bronchiectasis, or cystic fibrosis
  • Autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohnís disease, systemic lupus erythmatosis
  • Heart disease
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Diabetes or other chronic metabolic disorder
  • Severe anemia
  • Diseases, such as HIV or AIDS, or treatments which depress the immune system
  • Age 65 or over
  • Living in a nursing home or chronic care facility

Precautionary Measures:
The viruses that cause influenza are easily spread when someone with the virus sneezes, coughs, or even talks. Similar to cold viruses they are also spread hand-to-hand. If you shake, touch or hold the hand of an infected person (who may or may not appear to have symptoms) and then touch your eyes or nose, you are likely to infect yourself with the flu virus. These viruses are sturdy enough to live on hard, nonporous surfaces such as doorknobs or telephones or other objects which a person who has the flu may have touched. Since it is common for people with the flu to have droplets of secretions on their hands, the best precaution you can take to avoid the flu is to frequently wash your hands.

Other preventive measures which help to keep your immune system strong to ward off flu and other illnesses include:

  • Getting adequate sleep (most people need 6-8 hours)
  • Eating regular nutritious meals
  • Keeping alcohol consumption low
  • Keeping a positive attitude and balancing work with leisure (or at least taking short breaks from a heavy work or study schedule)
  • Keeping from smoking or other substance abuse

Self-Care For the Flu:
Itís nice if someone else can tend to you and help care for you if you have the flu. College students, however, often have to care for themselves because the schedules of friends and roommates do not allow for constant assistance.

Hereís what to do if you have the flu:

  • Drink lots of liquids, particularly very warm liquids which soothe the throat and loosen secretions such as hot tea or chicken soup or broth
  • Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to ease aches and pains and lower fever
  • Gargle with saltwater to shrink inflamed membranes of the throat
  • Donít use antibiotics (especially donít let other people give you left over antibiotics from some illness they have had. Viruses are not cured by antibiotics and taking them can only increase risk of becoming resistant to their effects when you really need them for a bacterial infection
  • Use disposable tissues

If you donít get better within a week, and especially if your fever lasts more than a few days and/or you continue to have coughing with phlegm or worsening ear pain, come to the FIT Health Services (free to full-time FIT students) or to another health care provider of your choice without delay.

For more information, see the Center for Disease Control's official Flu Facts web site.

Note: Full-Time FIT Students who have the FIT Student Injury and Sickness Insurance plan have the option of speaking with a personal health advisor if they have questions. (Refer to your insurance brochure for the telephone number to call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.)

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