Influenza (often called the flu) is a very contagious viral illness that can occur in anyone, but some people may be even more susceptible than others. It occurs most frequently in the winter months as people spend more time indoors. The virus is spread easily from person to person by infected respiratory secretions.
Complications of influenza require more than 200,000 people in the United States to be hospitalized every year, and 36,000 people die from seasonal flu complications. Serious illness is more likely in the very young, older adults, pregnant women, and people who have certain health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, liver disorders, chronic lung disease (including asthma), cancer and chronic kidney disease (CKD).
There have been several severe flu outbreaks (called pandemics) in the twentieth century, which led to many deaths worldwide because humans became infected with influenza viruses that developed (often from pigs or birds) and people had no immunity to these viruses.
A new strain of H1N1 influenza, which contains parts of the swine, avian and human influenza virus, was first seen in March 2009 in Mexico, but cases of human infection have now been seen around the world. A presidential advisory committee (a group of independent scientists) described swine flu as a “serious health threat to the United States” and warned that it could sicken half of all Americans and kill between 30,000 and 90,000 people.
Symptoms of infection with this new virus are similar to the seasonal flu – fever, chills, cough, sore throat, body aches, fatigue and headache. Vomiting and diarrhea has also been common, which differs from seasonal flu. The virus is spread by coughing or sneezing, or by touching surfaces contaminated with the virus and then touching your nose or mouth. You may be contagious beginning one day before symptoms begin until at least 24 hours after your fever has resolved (without taking fever reducing medications). People with a weakened immune system may be contagious for more than seven days.
Simple infection control measures can help you decrease the chance of becoming ill.
1. Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
2. Avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth.
3. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and then throw the tissue in the trash. You can also use the crook of your arm if no tissue is available.
4. Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze and before you eat. Alcohol based hand gels are also effective.
5. If you are sick with flu-like illness stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone.
Should you get either seasonal or H1N1 flu, anti-viral drugs can be used to make your illness milder and may also help prevent serious complications. These drugs require a prescription and are different from antibiotics. They work best if started within the first 48 hours of symptoms. They may also be used to help prevent getting the flu if recently exposed to a family member in the household having the flu.
The CDC recommends a yearly seasonal flu vaccine as the most important step in protecting against seasonal flu – especially those at highest risk for complications, and health care workers, and other people who live with or care for high risk people to prevent giving the flu to those at high risk. A seasonal flu vaccine will not protect you from the H1N1 flu. Scientists developed a new H1N1 vaccine. Officials say it is as safe as the traditional flu vaccine, which is used by millions each year. It is made the same way and would have been included in the seasonal flu shot had there been time. It requires two injections given 3-4 weeks apart. It is not a live virus; therefore it is considered safe for transplant patients. However, you should always check with your physician before getting any vaccine.
Detailed information regarding the H1N1 flu is available from the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/).
Karen Burchell, PA, is a physician assistant with Kidney Treatment Centers in San Antonio, Texas.
This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of aakpRENALIFE.