A comprehensive list of today's common ailments and health conditions.
By Angela Young
Influenza, commonly referred to as the flu, is an infectious disease caused by RNA viruses of the family Orthomyxoviridae (the influenza viruses), that affects birds and mammals. The most common symptoms of the disease are chills, fever, sore throat, muscle pains, severe headache, coughing, weakness/fatigue and general discomfort. Sore throat, fever and coughs are the most frequent symptoms. In more serious cases, influenza causes pneumonia, which can be fatal, particularly for the young and the elderly. Although it is often confused with other influenza-like illnesses, especially the common cold, influenza is a more severe disease than the common cold and is caused by a different type of virus. Influenza may produce nausea and vomiting, particularly in children, but these symptoms are more common in the unrelated gastroenteritis, which is sometimes called stomach flu or 24-hour flu.
Typically, influenza is transmitted through the air by coughs or sneezes, creating aerosols containing the virus. Influenza can also be transmitted by direct contact with bird droppings or nasal secretions, or through contact with contaminated surfaces. Airborne aerosols have been thought to cause most infections, although which means of transmission is most important is not absolutely clear. Influenza viruses can be inactivated by sunlight, disinfectants and detergents. As the virus can be inactivated by soap, frequent hand washing reduces the risk of infection.
Influenza spreads around the world in seasonal epidemics, resulting in the deaths of between 250,000 and 500,000 people every year, up to millions in some pandemic years. On average 41,400 people died each year in the United States between 1979 and 2001 from influenza. In 2010 the CDC in the United States changed the way it reports the 30 year estimates for deaths. Now they are reported as a range from a low of about 3,300 deaths to a high of 49,000 per year.
Three influenza pandemics occurred in the 20th century and killed tens of millions of people, with each of these pandemics being caused by the appearance of a new strain of the virus in humans. Often, these new strains appear when an existing flu virus spreads to humans from other animal species, or when an existing human strain picks up new genes from a virus that usually infects birds or pigs. An avian strain named H5N1 raised the concern of a new influenza pandemic, after it emerged in Asia in the 1990s, but it has not evolved to a form that spreads easily between people. In April 2009 a novel flu strain evolved that combined genes from human, pig, and bird flu, initially dubbed swine flu and also known as influenza A/H1N1, emerged in Mexico, the United States, and several other nations. The World Health Organization officially declared the outbreak to be a pandemic on June 11, 2009 (see 2009 flu pandemic). The WHO's declaration of a pandemic level 6 was an indication of spread, not severity, the strain actually having a lower mortality rate than common flu outbreaks
Vaccinations against influenza are usually given to people in developed countries and to farmed poultry. The most common human vaccine is the trivalent influenza vaccine (TIV) that contains purified and inactivated material from three viral strains. Typically, this vaccine includes material from two influenza A virus subtypes and one influenza B virus strain. The TIV carries no risk of transmitting the disease, and it has very low reactivity. A vaccine formulated for one year may be ineffective in the following year, since the influenza virus evolves rapidly, and new strains quickly replace the older ones. Antiviral drugs can be used to treat influenza, with neuraminidase inhibitors being particularly effective.
Symptoms of influenza can start quite suddenly one to two days after infection. Usually the first symptoms are chills or a chilly sensation, but fever is also common early in the infection, with body temperatures ranging from 38-39 °C (approximately 100-103 °F). Many people are so ill that they are confined to bed for several days, with aches and pains throughout their bodies, which are worse in their backs and legs. Symptoms of influenza may include:
It can be difficult to distinguish between the common cold and influenza in the early stages of these infections, but a flu can be identified by a high fever with a sudden onset and extreme fatigue. Diarrhea is not normally a symptom of influenza in adults, although it has been seen in some human cases of the H5N1 bird flu and can be a symptom in children. The symptoms most reliably seen in influenza are shown in the table to the right
Since antiviral drugs are effective in treating influenza if given early (see treatment section, below), it can be important to identify cases early. Of the symptoms listed above, the combinations of fever with cough, sore throat and/or nasal congestion can improve diagnostic accuracy. Two decision analysis studies suggest that during local outbreaks of influenza, the prevalence will be over 70%, and thus patients with any of these combinations of symptoms may be treated with neuraminidase inhibitors without testing. Even in the absence of a local outbreak, treatment may be justified in the elderly during the influenza season as long as the prevalence is over 15%.
The available laboratory tests for influenza continue to improve. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains an up-to-date summary of available laboratory tests. According to the CDC, rapid diagnostic tests have a sensitivity of 70–75% and specificity of 90–95% when compared with viral culture. These tests may be especially useful during the influenza season (prevalence=25%) but in the absence of a local outbreak, or peri-influenza season (prevalence=10%
People with the flu are advised to get plenty of rest, drink plenty of liquids, avoid using alcohol and tobacco and, if necessary, take medications such as acetaminophen (paracetamol) to relieve the fever and muscle aches associated with the flu. Children and teenagers with flu symptoms (particularly fever) should avoid taking aspirin during an influenza infection (especially influenza type B), because doing so can lead to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal disease of the liver. Since influenza is caused by a virus, antibiotics have no effect on the infection; unless prescribed for secondary infections such as bacterial pneumonia. Antiviral medication can be effective, but some strains of influenza can show resistance to the standard antiviral drugs.
The two classes of antiviral drugs used against influenza are neuraminidase inhibitors and M2 protein inhibitors (adamantane derivatives). Neuraminidase inhibitors are currently preferred for flu virus infections since they are less toxic and more effective. The CDC recommended against using M2 inhibitors during the 2005–06 influenza season due to high levels of drug resistance. As pregnant women seem to be more severely affected than the general population by the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus, prompt treatment with anti-influenza drugs has been recommended.
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