Influenza: What It Is & What You Can Do


Every few decades, a new generation of an ancient plague arises. It grows and mutates just enough to attack the unsuspecting masses with renewed fervor. Natural defenses are down and immune systems are shocked by this new invader as it tramples through society, running rampant and stealing lives.

When most people hear the term ‘flu,’ they reflect on missed work days, mild to high fevers, inconvenient coughs, and the aching tiredness that kept them in bed for a few days. The flu is often considered more of a wintertime pest than a serious medical condition.

That wasn’t the case in 1918. It was early in the year, and most of America’s young men were overseas, perishing and fighting as the greatest governments in the world were clashing in an epic war. Few people noticed when a young soldier in Kansas took ill, reporting to the hospital with aches and a fever. More attention was gathered when, by the end of that week, more than 500 army personnel had the disease and nearly 50 otherwise healthy young men had died.

By winter of the same year, the virus began to make a quiet exit from the world stage. It had slaughtered more than 21 million people worldwide.

In recent history, there has been considerable concern over the avian flu, swine flu, and other previously encountered strains of the influenza virus. These are considered influenza pandemics, or strains of the influenza that affect millions of people worldwide.

A pandemic flu varies greatly from the typical or ‘seasonal’ influenza virus, which occurs yearly and to which many individuals have a natural immunity. Pandemic influenza strains are particularly dangerous because they are newly formed viruses to which the human race does not have an immunity, making our bodies inefficient or unable to fight the virus.

Most individuals, especially in America, will not encounter a pandemic flu. However, between 25 and 50 million Americans are afflicted annually by the seasonal flu. In a normal year, the seasonal flu causes 150,000 hospitalizations and kills 30,000 to 40,000 people. More than 90% of those deaths occur in individuals over the age of 65. The remaining deaths primarily occur among children or immunologically compromised individuals.

Most of these illnesses and deaths can be prevented quickly and easily through an annual flu vaccine. This vaccine can be administered in one of two ways – through a traditional shot or a nasal spray. Vaccinations should be received in September to protect an individual against outbreaks, which can occur as early as October and continue into late spring.

It is important to note that the influenza virus is constantly mutating and there are an untold number of strains that a person can catch. Because of this, the vaccine can only prevent up to 90% of influenza infections.

The flu shot contains an killed virus and is approved for use in anyone older than six months, including people with chronic medical conditions such as asthma or heart disease. It is administered with a needle and usually injected into the arm.

The nasal spray contains a live, weakened virus that will not cause the flu. It is approved only for use in healthy people who are between two and 49 years of age and are not pregnant.

Some antiviral drugs have been proven helpful in decreasing the likelihood of contracting the flu. These are used as a second defense in addition to the traditional flu vaccine or as treatment for individuals who are already sick with the flu. Since some strains of the virus are immune to antiviral medication, they are only about 80% effective in preventing the flu. However, when taken within two days of becoming ill, antiviral medication can usually shorten the duration of the illness by one or two days.

Although it is difficult to place a monetary value on health, the influenza virus is responsible for costing the American public as much as $167 billion per year. These expenses include medicare reimbursements of up to $1 billion, pharmaceuticals, lost productivity due to employee sick days, and other associated costs. The flu places an enormous burden on medical clinics, as well as on low-income families.

The best way to avoid the pain, inconvenience and expense of the influenza virus is to get vaccinated against it. Remember basic hygiene, as frequent hand washing can help prevent the spread of the virus. See a health care practitioner immediately if flu symptoms begin to appear.