Kalamaoo County

Public Health Preparedness


So what exactly is the influenza? Well, it's not a cold, and it has nothing to do with your stomach. Many people use the term "stomach flu" to describe illnesses with nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. While these symptoms can be caused by many different viruses, bacteria, or even parasites Influenza, or what is commonly known as "the flu," is caused by viruses that infect the respiratory tract (nose, throat, and lungs). It is highly contagious, and affects millions of people every year.

Most people who get the flu recover completely in one to two weeks, but some people develop serious and potentially life-threatening medical complications, such as pneumonia. Pneumonia and influenza together are the sixth most common cause of death in the United States.

Arm yourself with some basic information and learn how you and your family can fight the flu during the coming flu season.

How is the flu virus passed around?

Influenza is spread from person to person through mists or sprays of infectious respiratory secretions caused by coughing and sneezing. (This is called "droplet spread.") This can happen when droplets from a cough or sneeze of an infected person are propelled (generally up to 3 feet) through the air and deposited on the mouth or nose of people nearby. Though much less frequent, the viruses also can be spread when a person touches respiratory droplets on another person or an object and then touches their own mouth or nose (or someone else's mouth or nose) before washing their hands.

How long is a person contagious?

A person can spread the flu starting one day before he or she feels sick. Adults can continue to pass the flu virus to others for another three to seven days after symptoms start. Because their immune systems are less developed, children can pass the virus for longer than seven days. Symptoms start one to four days after the virus enters the body. Some persons can be infected with the flu virus but have no symptoms. That means that you can give someone the flu before you know you're sick as well as while you are sick.

Who is most at risk?

Millions of people in the United States - about 10% to 20% of U.S. residents - will get influenza each year. Anyone can get the flu (even healthy people), and serious problems from influenza can happen at any age.

Most people who get influenza will recover in one to two weeks, but some people will develop life-threatening complications (such as pneumonia) as a result of the flu. Each year about 36,000 Americans die because of influenza or influenza-related pneumonia.

How do I know if I have the flu?

The flu is different from a cold. Influenza usually comes on suddenly and may include these symptoms (commonly referred to as "flu-like symptoms):

  • Fever of 100 to 103 F in adults (often higher in children)
  • Respiratory symptoms, such as cough, sore throat, and runny or stuffy nose
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Extreme fatigue

What's the difference between influenza and the "stomach flu"?

Although nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea can sometimes accompany influenza infection, especially in children, gastrointestinal symptoms are rarely prominent. The term "stomach flu" is a misnomer that is sometimes used to describe gastrointestinal illnesses caused by other microorganisms The flu is a respiratory disease and not a stomach or intestinal disease.

What should I do if I become sick with the flu?

Influenza is caused by a virus, so antibiotics (like penicillin) can't cure it. If you do get sick, the best way to treat the illness is to:

  • Rest
  • Drink plenty of liquids
  • Avoid using alcohol and tobacco
  • Take medication to relieve symptoms

How can I keep from getting the flu?

Anyone over the age of six months who wants to avoid the flu, or who wants to avoid spreading the flu to someone at risk, should get a flu shot. There are also certain good health habits that can help prevent the flu (see below). In addition, antiviral medications may be used to prevent the flu.

How effective are flu shots?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu shots have been shown to reduce hospitalization by approximately 70 percent and death by about 85 percent in free-living persons over age 65. Among nursing home residents, flu shots can reduce the risk of hospitalization by approximately 50 percent, the risk of pneumonia by about 60 percent and the risk of death by 75 to 80 percent.

There are two types of flu vaccine:

  • The "flu shot" - an inactivated vaccine (containing killed virus) that is given with a needle. The flu shot is approved for use in people older than six months, including healthy people and people with chronic medical conditions.
  • The nasal-spray flu vaccine-a vaccine made with live, weakened flu viruses that do not cause the flu (sometimes called LAIV for "Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine"). LAIV is approved for use in healthy people five years to 49 years of age who are not pregnant.

About two weeks after vaccination, antibodies that provide protection against influenza virus infection develop in the body.

Who should get a flu shot?

In general, anyone who wants to reduce their chances of getting the flu can get vaccinated. However, certain people should get vaccinated each year. They are either people who are at high risk of having serious flu complications or people who live with or care for those at high risk for serious complications. During flu seasons when vaccine supplies are limited or delayed, including the 2005-06 season, CDC makes recommendations regarding priority groups for vaccination. People who should get vaccinated each year are:

1. People who are at high risk for complications from the flu including:

  • People 65 years and older;
  • People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities that house those with long-term illnesses;
  • Adults and children six months and older with chronic heart or lung conditions, including asthma;
  • Adults and children six months and older who needed regular medical care or were in a hospital during the previous year because of a metabolic disease (like diabetes), chronic kidney disease, or weakened immune system (including immune system problems caused by medicines or by infection with human immunodeficiency virus [HIV/AIDS]);
  • Children six months to 18 years of age who are on long-term aspirin therapy. (Children given aspirin while they have influenza are at risk of Reye syndrome.);
  • Women who will be pregnant during the influenza season;
  • All children six to 23 months of age;
  • People with any condition that can compromise respiratory function or the handling of respiratory secretions (that is, a condition that makes it hard to breathe or swallow, such as brain injury or disease, spinal cord injuries, seizure disorders, or other nerve or muscle disorders.)

2. People 50 to 64 years of age
Nearly one-third of people 50 to 64 years of age in the United States have one or more medical conditions that place them at increased risk for serious flu complications.

3. People who can transmit the flu to others at high risk for complications
Any person in close contact with someone in a high-risk group (see above) should get vaccinated. This includes all health-care workers, caregivers of children six to 23 months of age, and close contacts of people 65 years and older.

Who should not get a flu shot?

There are some people who should not be vaccinated. These include:

  • People who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs.
  • People who have had a severe reaction to an influenza vaccination in the past.
  • People who developed Guillain-Barre syndrome within six weeks of getting an influenza vaccine previously.
  • Children less than six months of age.
  • People who are sick with a fever. (These people can get vaccinated once their symptoms lessen).

What are some good health habits I can adopt to help prevent the flu?

Avoid close contact.
Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.

Stay home when you are sick.
If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick. You will help prevent others from catching your illness.

Cover your mouth and nose.
Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.

Clean your hands.
Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.

Where can I go for more information about influenza?

For more information about influenza, contact your medical provider or visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at www.cdc.gov/flu.

Kalamazoo County Health & Community Services is committed to providing equitable, culturally competent care to all individuals served, regardless of race, age, sex, color, national origin, religion, height, weight, marital status, political affiliation, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

Links to external sites do not constitute endorsements by Kalamazoo County.