Every year, everywhere, millions and millions of people around the world contract the flu. In fact, The World Health Organization reports that flu epidemics cause anywhere between 3 to 5 million cases of severe illnesses that result in hundreds of thousands of deaths. The flu, although extremely common, is no small thing.
Further complicating this picture is the fact that very often, flu symptomatology is confused with that of the common cold. With the potential for generating such dramatic impact on the state of health of so many individuals, it is imperative that we learn to recognize flu symptoms for what they are, in an attempt to minimize their effects on our bodies.
What is the flu?
Like the common cold, the flu is an acute respiratory disease. However, unlike the common cold, which is caused by several types of viruses, the flu is produced exclusively by the influenza virus. And in contrast to the common cold, whose symptoms develop gradually, the flu arrives suddenly, and its symptoms develop with greater intensity and severity.
Thankfully, the duration of the flu is “self-limiting,” that is, most patients begin to improve after only a few days. However, it can sometimes produce more severe conditions, such as pneumonia. Additionally, in rare cases, the flu has been known to exacerbate pre-existing conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, which can lead to death.
How is the flu spread?
The Influenza virus is spread from a sick individual to a healthy individual through the thousands of microscopic droplets of saliva that are generated with each cough or sneeze. Another highly infectious vector is the one created by the many surfaces that harbor the virus, and that come into daily contact with healthy individuals such as bathroom door handles and common household appliances like TV remotes.
Moreover, when contaminated hands are brought near the face, the Influenza virus is able to enter the new host’s respiratory tract easily. As such, the importance of hygienic practices such as the proper cleaning of hands and covering of the mouth when sneezing or coughing, cannot be stated enough.
In the case of the Influenza virus, the span of time between the moment of infection and the initial appearance of symptoms, also known as the viral incubation period, lasts between one to four days. However, most people become infectious one or two days before the appearance of the first symptoms.
What are the first signs of the flu?
The most notorious fact about the influenza virus is that the flu manifests suddenly and with a high fever of about 38 or 39 degrees. The fever, which is typically accompanied by chills and body aches, lasts about two or three days. Along with the high fever, the flu usually presents with a severe malaise and a sense of fatigue or weakness that can be extreme.
However, many of the symptoms associated with the disease are also present in a host of other viral infections, especially in patients with the common cold. Therefore, it’s highly relevant that we learn to differentiate between the two.
Let us take a closer look at the most common symptoms of the flu and how they compare to their manifestations in patients with the common cold.
Any time the body is affected by a viral or bacterial infection, a fever is likely to be generated. The fever, which can be described as a marked increase in the body’s normal temperature range, is a useful defense mechanism that can reduce the presence of infectious agents in the body by increasing the proliferation of T cells and the mobility of leukocytes.
High fevers, which are present in close to 90% of patients with the flu, can reach upwards of 40 degrees Centigrade. In these cases, it becomes crucial to control the temperature, especially in the elderly and young children, because essential body functions can potentially become affected. The common cold, on the other hand, rarely presents with a high fever and only occasionally with a low-grade fever.
In the case of high fevers, follow these tips to lower the temperature:
- Apply a cold, damp compress to your forehead.
- Take a bath in lukewarm water.
- Drink plenty of fluids and when hungry, eat foods that are easily digestible.
- Take acetaminophen and ibuprofen to help treat discomfort and lower the temperature.