Home Health Is influenza really something to worry about?

Is influenza really something to worry about?

by Tania Griffin
An unwell lady sitting on a couch with a blanket over her

We’ve all been there: the sore throat, runny nose and cough. Often, feeling like this is due to the common cold, especially if the onset is gradual and the symptoms quite mild. But with winter approaching, is flu something we really need to worry about?

While more than 100 different viruses can cause a cold, influenza is caused by one of four viruses, namely types A, B, C and D, with the circulation of influenza A and B causing seasonal outbreaks of the disease.

Flu is characterised by an abrupt onset that could include chills, fever, headache, fatigue, weakness along with chest discomfort and coughing, as well as sometimes a blocked or runny nose and sore throat.

An increased incidence of flu is generally associated with autumn and winter. This is because the flu virus lives longer indoors and thrives in less humid conditions. The colder months also see people spend more time indoors and in closer contact with others, which leads to more inhalation of the virus, or contracting it through the eyes, nose or mouth.

Most people who get flu will recover in a time period of between a few days and two weeks. The danger of flu is that some people may develop complications such as pneumonia, which can be life-threatening. According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, seasonal flu results in an estimated three to five million cases of severe illness, and about 290 000 to 650 000 deaths globally, with between 6 000 and 11 000 people in South Africa dying as a result of flu complications every year.

Approximately half of these deaths are in the elderly, with the highest rates of hospitalisation being in those 65 years and older, those with HIV, and children less than 5 years of age. Pregnant women are also at an increased risk of hospitalisation and death from flu infections. Those with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, lung disease, tuberculosis and heart disease are also at increased risk of being hospitalised as a result of flu.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), vaccination is the best way to prevent the flu. Because flu viruses are constantly changing, flu vaccines are updated from one season to the next to protect against the viruses that research suggests will be common during the upcoming flu season.

In collaboration with partners globally, the WHO continuously monitors influenza viruses and activity globally, and recommends what to include in seasonal influenza vaccines twice a year, to accommodate flu seasons in both the northern and southern hemispheres. This guides countries in terms of which formulation vaccines to use, and supports decisions for timing of vaccination campaigns.

With flu vaccinations being safe, effective and used for more than 60 years, the WHO recommends an annual flu vaccination especially for those more at risk of flu complications, including pregnant women, children aged 6 months to 5 years of age, people over the age of 65, people with chronic medical conditions, and health workers.

Even for those people who are not at an increased risk of complications, an annual flu vaccination can prevent severe illness, reduce time off work or school, and can help limit the spread of flu to loved ones and colleagues. In fact, vaccinated employees can serve as a barrier to limit the spread of influenza within the workplace and wider community by as much as 78%.

The flu vaccine works by stimulating the immune system to produce its own antibodies against the disease. Contrary to what some people may believe, none of the ingredients in the vaccine can cause actual flu.

Although the timing of the flu season varies from year to year in South Africa, it is generally most severe during the winter months of May to August, but can start as early as April or as late as July, with the average duration of the flu season lasting 19 weeks. The best time to get your flu vaccine is before the season starts, ideally as early as March, but getting it later will protect you during the remainder of the season.

Flu vaccinations are currently available at most healthcare providers, pharmacies and clinics in South Africa.

Image credit: Freepik

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