Influenza, commonly called "the flu," is an illness caused by RNA viruses that infect the respiratory tract of many animals, birds, and humans. In most people, the infection results in the person getting fever, cough, headache, and malaise (tired, no energy); some people also may develop a sore throat, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The majority of individuals has symptoms for about one to two weeks and then recovers with no problems. However, compared with most other viral respiratory infections, such as the common cold, influenza (flu) infection can cause a more severe illness with a mortality rate (death rate) of about 0.1% of people who are infected with the virus.
The Haemophilus influenzae is a bacterium that was incorrectly considered to cause the flu until the virus was demonstrated to be the correct cause in 1933. This bacterium can cause lung infections in infants and children, and it occasionally causes ear, eye, sinus, joint, and a few other infections, but it does not cause the flu.
The flu (influenza) viruses
nfluenza viruses cause the flu and are divided into three types, designated A, B, and C. Influenza types A and B are responsible for epidemics of respiratory illness that occur almost every winter and are often associated with increased rates of hospitalization and death. Influenza type C differs from types A and B in some important ways. Type C infection usually causes either a very mild respiratory illness or no symptoms at all; it does not cause epidemics and does not have the severe public-health impact of influenza types A and B. Efforts to control the impact of influenza are aimed at types A and B, and the remainder of this discussion will be devoted only to these two types.
Influenza viruses continually change over time, usually by mutation (change in the viral RNA). This constant changing often enables the virus to evade the immune system of the host (humans, birds, and other animals) so that the host is susceptible to changing influenza virus infections throughout life. This process works as follows: a host infected with influenza virus develops antibodies against that virus; as the virus changes, the "first" antibody no longer recognizes the "newer" virus and infection can occur because the host does not recognize the new flu virus as a problem until the infection is well under way.
Treatment that can do at home
Increasing liquid intake, warm showers, and warm compresses, especially in the nasal area, can reduce the body aches and reduce nasal congestion. Nasal strips and humidifiers may help reduce congestion, especially while trying to sleep. Some physicians recommend nasal irrigation with saline to further reduces congestion; some recommend nonprescription decongestants. Fever can be treated with over-the counter acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin and others) (read labels for safe dosage). Cough can be suppressed by cough drops and over-the-counter cough syrup. If an individual's symptoms at home get worse, their doctor should be notified.
Most of the illness and death caused by influenza can be prevented by annual influenza vaccination.
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