Dr. Jennie Johnstone, St. Joseph's Health Centre's Infection Control Officer, gives a run down of what seasonal influenza is, how it affects you and shares some tips on the best strategies to keep healthy through flu season.
What is the flu?
The formal term for the "flu" is influenza, which is a respiratory viral illness that affects people in the late fall/winter season.
Influenza symptoms include cough, fever, chills, muscle aches throughout the body and overall fatigue. In young children with influenza, it may cause nausea and vomiting, but less so in young, healthy adults.
In most people, the course of influenza is self limited, lasting anywhere from seven to 10 days. However, there are several groups of people who are at increased risk of having severe consequences of influenza such as pneumonia and even death. Individuals at increased risk of severe influenza include young infants and children, elderly populations and those with chronic health issues and compromised immune systems.
It is estimated that in Canada alone, 20,000 people are hospitalized each year due to influenza, with 4,000 deaths related to influenza annually.
Common cold vs. Influenza – what's the difference?
Most people tend to refer to the common cold or any form of respiratory issues as "having the flu".
The biggest difference between influenza and the common cold is having a fever. Fever is a typical symptom of influenza but not a cold. Influenza affects your whole body, from achy muscles to fatigue and can cause breathing problems. With the common cold, symptoms include issues with your upper respiratory airways, such as coughing and a runny nose.
Colds can also happen at anytime (yes, even in warm spring and summer months) where as influenza strikes during the late fall/winter months.
You know will know it if you have influenza. Overall, you feel pretty miserable and weak, and people usually describe having influenza as feeling like you've been "hit by a truck".
What can you do to prevent getting influenza?
The two most important ways you can protect yourself and your loved ones from getting influenza is through practicing proper hand hygiene (washing your hands) and getting your flu shot.
Influenza spreads easily from person to person through breathing, coughing and sneezing. The virus can also spread when a person touches tiny droplets from coughs and sneezes on another person or an object and then touches their own mouth, eyes or nose before washing their hands.
Washing your hands properly and frequently using soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizers kills germs on your hands that can be easily spread. Frequent hand washing is essential to maintaining your overall health.
When you come to St. Joseph's for an appointment or to visit a loved one, it is important to wash you hands when you enter and leave the building. There are several hand sanitizing stations at each entrance of the hospital, as well as throughout the building to use during your visit.
In Ontario, the influenza vaccine is given free of charge. All you have to do is visit your family doctor or go to your local Public Health unit for the flu shot. Click here for a list of Toronto Public Health's flu shot clinics.
In addition to keeping your hands clean and getting vaccinated, also remember to practice respiratory etiquette – which means coughing and sneezing into your arm sleeve instead of your hands to reduce the spread of germs. Also, stay home for work or school if you aren't feeling well.
But won't I get influenza from getting a flu shot?
No, it is impossible to get influenza from a flu shot. Influenza strikes at a time when there are other respiratory illnesses around which can cause similar symptoms to the flu. Because of the variety of illnesses it is not uncommon to catch another virus that causes things like a cough or runny nose, even though you've been vaccinated against Influenza.
When you come down with influenza, you feel pretty miserable for several days and it impacts all aspects of your life. Remember, everyone is at risk of getting influenza. By hand washing, getting your flu shot, practicing respiratory etiquette and staying home from work when you don't feel well, are effective strategies in protecting yourself and your loved one from becoming sick with influenza.
Is it safe to get the flu shot if you are pregnant?
Yes, it is safe. Pregnant women generally have a lot of anxiety about pregnancy overall and things like getting their flu shot. It is safe to be vaccinated for influenza while you are pregnant.
It is also important to point out that pregnant women are more likely to suffer a severe course of influenza, in comparison to non-pregnant women.
It's recommended that pregnant woman get vaccinated against influenza. For me, getting my flu shot is one of the most important ways I can protect myself, my family, my colleagues and patients from getting the flu.
Additional information on influenza can be found on our website at http://www.stjoe.on.ca/community/flu.php.
Page last updated: March 25, 2011