Thursday, September 20, 2007


Influenza (the flu) is caused by a highly contagious virus, which is spread by coughs and sneezes. Flu epidemics occur when there are minor changes in the nature of the virus so that more people are susceptible.

Pandemics (worldwide epidemics) occur when there are major changes in the virus, and can cause very many deaths. There are three types of flu virus – A, B and C. Influenza A is more likely to cause epidemics.

Flu symptoms
Flu symptoms develop one to three days after infection and include:

* High fever, chills and sweating
* Sore throat
* Weakness
* Headache and generalised muscle and joint pains (legs and back)
* A non-productive cough that can later become more severe and productive.

Flu versus the common cold
The flu is more than a bad cold.

* Cold symptoms last one to two days while the flu can last up to a week.
* The flu causes a high fever. A cold sometimes causes a mild fever.
* Muscular pains and shivering attacks occur with the flu but not with a cold.
* Colds cause a runny nose, while the flu usually starts with a dry sensation in the nose and throat.

Serious complications are rare
In a small proportion of cases, flu will lead to:

* Secondary bacterial pneumonia – occurs when bacteria invade the lungs. Symptoms include shortness of breath, green-yellow phlegm, chest pains and a temperature. Mortality rates are high but it is less lethal than primary influenza pneumonia.
* Primary influenza pneumonia – almost always results in death. Symptoms include difficulty breathing and blue discoloration of the skin (cyanosis).
* Inflammation of the brain or heart – can occur during recovery from the flu.
* Reye’s syndrome – leads to brain inflammation and liver degeneration and is fatal in between 10 and 40 per cent of cases. Children under 16 years should not be given any medication containing aspirin as it increases the risk of Reye’s syndrome.

People at risk of complications
Complications are more common among people with an underlying medical condition or reduced immunity. Flu can increase the risk of death or serious complications from the underlying disease.

Flu treatment
There are now specific antiviral drugs available, but their effectiveness is very limited. The recommended treatment for flu is:

* Stay in bed and rest until the temperature has been normal for 48 hours.
* Drink enough fluids to maintain normal urine output.
* Take paracetamol to control fever, aches and pains (adults can use aspirin). Early use of antiviral medication may shorten the length and severity of illness. Consult a doctor to discuss treatment.
* Avoid exposure to dust, alcohol, fumes and tobacco smoke as much as possible.

Consult a doctor if symptoms such as difficulty breathing, coughing up green-yellow phlegm or severe headache develop.

Flu immunisation is recommended for older and ‘at risk’ groups
Immunisation against the flu each year is recommended for:

* Everyone aged 65 years and older
* Koori and Torres Strait Islanders aged over 50
* Adults and children with chronic heart, lung or kidney disease or metabolic disorders such as diabetes
* Adults and children receiving immunosuppressive treatment (including long-term steroids)
* Residents in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities
* Persons with immune deficiency, including HIV
* People in contact with high-risk groups, including health care providers, staff of nursing homes and long-term care facilities, and anyone sharing a household with ‘at risk’ people including children six months or older.

In Australia, an annual influenza vaccine is recommended in March or April. Protection develops about two weeks after the injection and lasts for up to one year.

Where to get help

* Your doctor
* Your local Council
* Your local community health centre

Things to remember

* The flu is more than just a bad cold.
* Flu can occasionally lead to serious complications including death.
* Older and ‘at risk’ groups should be immunised every year against the flu.
* Protection after immunisation takes 10 to 14 days.

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