How Influenza Spreads

Americans have a bad habit of treating influenza dismissively. People often refer to what is actually a minor cold or stomach bug as “a touch of the flu,” but that’s a mistake. Influenza presents a very real danger to human health. It can and does kill, so it should always be treated with caution. Understanding how influenza spreads can help you to protect yourself from this virus.

What Is Influenza?

As the Mayo Clinic explains, influenza is a contagious virus that attacks the respiratory system. It continually evolves and changes, so it’s a challenging disease to fight. Because new strains can be very different immunologically, a vaccine or the antibodies produced as a result of a prior flu episode are not always effective against the circulating version of influenza.

When the flu strikes, it generally hits quickly and involves symptoms that can include a high fever, severe fatigue and weakness, body aches, headache, chills and sweats, nasal congestion, sore throat, and a persistent cough. In healthy people, most cases of the flu will eventually resolve after a few days of misery, but serious complications can arise. Seniors, young children, pregnant women, individuals with compromised immune systems, and people who have chronic health conditions are most likely to experience complications from influenza.

How Influenza Spreads

If you want to avoid catching the flu, understanding how influenza spreads is crucial. Basically, when an infected person talks, coughs, or sneezes, they release tiny droplets that carry the virus. Anyone nearby can inhale these droplets. Alternately, they may encounter them by touching a contaminated surface. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, influenza spreads easily from person to person over distances of up to six feet. Unfortunately, keeping your distance from those infected with influenza is easier said than done. Although it takes one to four days for most people to begin showing symptoms, a person who has the flu is contagious even before the signs appear. This means that people can pass the flu on before they even realize that they are sick. Adults suffering from the flu remain contagious for up to a week after becoming sick; children can remain contagious for longer.

Protecting Yourself from Influenza

Influenza is a tough and dangerous foe. Thankfully, there are steps that you can take to reduce your risk of catching the flu.

The Flu Shot

Experts encourage everyone who is able to do so to get an annual flu shot. Because influenza is continually changing, vaccine makers predict which strains will produce the greatest threat each year and create a vaccine to try and combat those strains. It’s an imperfect strategy. Vaccine effectiveness is generally between 40 and 60 percent in most years.

Flu-Fighting Health Habits

If you want to dodge influenza and slow its spread, it helps to hone flu-fighting health habits:

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