Influenza, also known as the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by flu viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. Unlike a cold appears gradually, the flu usually comes on suddenly. Colds also rarely have a fever associated with them.

During a January 12 update on the widespread flu activity, CDC Director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald said, “CDC is the common defense of the country against health threats and clearly one of the threats facing us right now is influenza. We are currently in the midst of a very active flu season. With much of the country experiencing widespread and intense flu activity. Many of you may be have been directly impacted by this.” The Illinois Department of Public Health is also reporting widespread flu activity.

With the high volume of flu making its rounds, it is important to know the symptoms and the difference between a cold and the flu. The CDC says the flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. Because these two types of illnesses have similar symptoms, it can be difficult to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. In general, the flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms are more common and intense. In general, colds are usually milder than the flu.

Sukepma Giri, MD, Springfield Clinic Jacksonville, says, “people with colds generally have a runny nose and or nasal congestion. Flu symptoms include fever as high as 101°-102° or feverish/chills, cough, sore throat, body aches, headaches and fatigue. But flu symptoms can also include a runny nose similar to a cold.”

Dr. Giri, says Springfield Clinic in Jacksonville has “actually experienced more widespread flu cases in the last few weeks. We believe it has peaked in the last couple of weeks, but that doesn’t mean the flu season is over.”

Dr. Giri says the flu season typically peaks between December and February. “We suggest people get the flu shot in October, but it is still worth getting it through January. It may offer some protection, even if it does not seem to cover all the flu viruses this year. This is especially true for young children, adults 65 years of age and older, and pregnant women who are in higher risk categories.” The Morgan County Health Department agrees and also has flu vaccines available.

Fitzgerald said, “So far this season, influenza A, H3N2, has been the most common form of influenza. These viruses are often linked to more severe illness, especially among children and people age 65 and older. When H3 viruses are predominant, we tend to have a worse flu season with more hospitalizations and more deaths. While our surveillance systems show that nationally the flu season may be peaking now, we know from past experience that it will take many more weeks for flu activity to truly slow down. We also know that you can reduce your risk of getting the flu through everyday good health habits like covering your mouth when you cough and frequently washing your hands.”

Dr. Giri agrees, “the best way to reduce chances of spreading the flu is to wash your hands, stay home, and see your primary care physician first if symptoms worsen.”

Treating the flu includes rest, lots of fluids to prevent dehydration, staying warm, taking over the counter medicines including Tylenol or ibuprofen (such as Advil). It also means staying home and avoiding contact with other people. Dr. Giri says physicians can prescribe antiviral drugs that can lessen symptoms and shorten the time you are stick by one or two days if taken in the first 24-48 hours.”

The CDC information says people with flu can spread it to others up to about six feet away. Most experts think that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. The droplets land in the mouths and nose of people nearby or are possibly inhaled into the lungs. People might also touch a surface or objects that has been touched by a someone with the flu and then touch their own mouth or nose.

Dr. Giri says, “people can be contagious 24-48 hours prior to symptoms developing and up to 5-7 days, even up to 14 days after symptoms develop.” This is why it is important to stay home from work or school until there is no fever for at least 24 hours.

Experts all agree if a person experiences any of the following symptoms they should get immediate medical care: For children: fast breathing or trouble breathing, bluish skin color, not drinking enough fluids, not waking up or not interacting, being so irritable that the child does not want to be held, flu-like symptoms that improve. but then return with a fever and worse coughing, or fever with a rash. Additional signs in infants include: being unable to eat, has trouble breathing, has no tears when crying, and significantly fewer wet diapers than normal.

In adults, emergency warning signs are: difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, purple or blue discoloration of the lips, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, sudden dizziness, confusion, severe or persistent vomiting, seizures, or if flu-like symptoms that improve. but then return with a fever and worse coughing.

Fitzgerald says, “You need, of course, to limit contact with others who might be sick and if possible, stay home when you are sick to help prevent the spread of germs and respiratory illnesses like the flu.” But if you are caring with people who have the flu the CDC recommends some precautions: avoid being face to face with the sick person; when holding sick children, place their chin on your shoulder so they will not couch in your face; wash your hands often; and if soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub. In addition, make sure to wash your hands after touching the sick person and after handling their tissues and laundry.”

Passavant Area Hospital Dietician Karen Sibert says during the flu season it is important for everyone to also get plenty of fluids, fruits and vegetables to keep as healthy as possible through natural nutrition.

In addition to the flu, Dr. Giri says she has seen an increase in strep, bronchitis and other upper respiratory illnesses.

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