Influenza, better known as simply the flu, is a viral disease typically caused by one of four types of influenza virus. According to a study by the CDC, the influenza virus sickens an average of eight percent of the population each season and has led to several pandemics in the last century. Throughout most of the United States, flu season lasts from October to March, most often due to the spread of either influenza A or influenza B.
Although the virus is typically present throughout the year, it is more transmissible in cool, dry environments. Several factors are believed to contribute to this phenomenon.
- Influenza viruses thrive in cold, dry weather. They live longer and are hardier under these circumstances.
- People spend more time in close quarters during the winter.
- Lower amounts of vitamin D, critical for the immune system, are processed by the human body during dark winter months.
- Mucous membranes may be compromised by cold, dry weather.
Transmission, Incubation Periods, and Symptoms
Flu viruses are frequently spread through the air via particles released when an infected individual coughs, sneezes, or even talks. These particles can linger in the air for anywhere from a few minutes to several hours and can travel up to six feet from where they are released. They can also survive for up to two days on hard surfaces. People can get infected either by being exposed to airborne virus particles or by touching a surface contaminated with flu virus and then touching their face.
The incubation period of a disease is the time that elapses between exposure to a pathogen and the onset of symptoms. For influenza viruses, this is between two and eight days. Not all infected individuals will experience symptoms, and for many others, their symptoms are mild. Children, adults over the age of 50, pregnant individuals, and those with additional medical conditions are most at risk for developing serious symptoms and related complications.
Common symptoms of the flu include:
- Runny nose
- Muscle aches
- Sore throat
Some people, especially children and high-risk individuals, may also experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. An influenza infection can also lead to other conditions, including pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, meningitis, and encephalitis. Symptoms may also worsen preexisting conditions, like cardiovascular disease, asthma, and anemia.
6 Preventative Measures to Take
The best way to avoid the discomfort and complications related to an influenza infection is to avoid catching it at all. While there is no foolproof way of avoiding the flu entirely during flu season, there are several simple steps we can take to greatly reduce the chances of catching the flu.
1. Get your flu shot.
Though not 100% effective, the influenza vaccine blocks approximately 40% to 60% of influenza infections. In addition, if you do catch influenza after getting vaccinated, the symptoms are typically milder and don’t last as long. Flu vaccines change yearly to keep up with new strains and often become available as early as October.
2. Wash your hands with soap and water.
Hands are the most likely body parts to come into contact with other surfaces. This makes cleaning them vitally important for avoiding infections. It is important to use both soap and water—and to scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. The lather created when washing your hands with soap and water removes not only dirt but also harmful chemicals, bacteria, and viruses. In addition, the physical action of washing your hands destroys many of the germs lurking on them.
3. Keep your distance
Avoid close contact with sick people and try to avoid crowded areas. Remember that the flu virus can linger in the air and can spread out about six feet from where it is released. If you do go to a venue where people are closely packed together, consider wearing a mask to reduce exposure.
4. Maintain healthy habits
Ensuring that you get enough sleep, exercise, and good nutrition also helps to boost your immune system. A healthy, active immune system is better able to fight off viruses.
5. Stay Hydrated
Staying hydrated helps the body fight the flu in multiple ways. It both helps to maintain the mucous membranes, which protect the body from viral and bacterial invaders and decreases irritation of the throat and nasal passages.
6. Disinfect commonly touched surfaces.
Because the virus can survive on hard surfaces for 24 to 48 hours, commonly touched surfaces like doorknobs, remote controls, cell phones, and water faucets can become vectors for the disease. Keeping these surfaces disinfected helps prevent that from happening.
Preventing the Spread
While these methods greatly reduce the chance of you getting the flu, they cannot prevent every case. If you do get the flu, there are several actions that reduce the chances of spreading it to others. Many of them are similar to the actions that you take to prevent getting flu in the first place.
Stay hydrated to shorten the length of your sickness. This is especially important for those who have symptoms of nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. For the best results, choose hydrating liquids that are high in electrolytes and low in sugars. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water and thoroughly disinfect any surfaces you come into contact with. Avoid contact with other individuals. If at all possible, stay home and keep yourself somewhat isolated from other people in the household. If you do have to go out in public, wear a face mask that covers your mouth and nose. In addition, you should cough or sneeze into a Kleenex or your elbow rather than covering your mouth with your hands, and properly dispose of any tissues right away.
While the flu sickens many during volatile flu seasons, there are many common-sense actions we, as individuals, can do to lessen the impact of the virus. From basic hygienic solutions to vaccination, every step we take to reduce the spread of influenza saves lives by preventing or weakening outbreaks.