Biology for Kids
What is influenza?
Influenza is the long name for the disease we usually call the "flu." It is caused when the body is infected by one of the many types of influenza viruses. The virus generally attacks the respiratory system including the lungs, throat, and nose.
Since there are different types of influenza, the symptoms aren't always the same. Also, different people will have different symptoms. However, there are some common symptoms that most people who get the flu will have which include:
- Fever over 100 degrees F
- Runny nose
- Body aches and soreness
- Tiredness and weakness
- Chills and sweats
How do you get the flu?
The influenza virus is passed from person to person. It can travel through the air when someone sneezes or coughs. It can also get passed when someone touches an object that an infected person has just touched.
A lot of times we get the flu when the virus gets on our hands and then we touch our mouth, nose, or eyes. It might get on our hands when we shake hands with a sick person or touch something like a glass, door handle, or phone that the infected person handled. This is why it is so important to wash your hands if you don't want to get sick.
Is influenza dangerous?
Generally the flu is not dangerous. Most people are better within a week or so. However, sometimes people can get much sicker from the flu and it can lead to other complications such as pneumonia and ear infections. People over the age of 65, young children, and pregnant women are more at risk of getting complications. Thousands of people die every year from flu-related complications. Most of these are older people who get pneumonia.
The influenza virus was much more dangerous in the past. In 1918, there was a worldwide influenza pandemic nicknamed the Spanish flu that killed over 50 million people.
Types of Influenza
There are several different strains and types of the influenza virus. The three main types are called A, B, and C. The "A" type is generally the most dangerous with the most severe symptoms in humans. Each year a new strain comes out that is different from the previous year. This is why you need to get a new flu shot each year.
Sometimes different strains of flu are given names using letters and numbers. Influenza A viruses have an H and an N in the name referring to the scientific terms Hemagglutinin and Neuraminidase. Some examples of this include H1N1 (which caused the Spanish flu of 1918 and the Swine flu of 2009) and H5N1 (which is commonly called the Bird flu).
There aren't a lot of treatments for the flu once someone is infected. Mostly doctors will advise bed rest and plenty of fluids. People who are at risk of getting complications need to see their doctor and may need to go to the hospital. ***
Can you help prevent influenza?
There are a number of things that can be done to prevent getting infected by the flu virus:
- Flu vaccine
- Wash your hands often
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or with your elbow when you sneeze or cough
- Avoid shaking hands with others
- Avoid crowds during flu season
- Not everyone who is infected by the flu virus gets symptoms. Some people (around 33%) are asymptomatic, meaning they are carriers of the flu virus, but don't have symptoms.
- People are generally contagious starting one day before they get sick and then for the next five to seven days.
- More people died from the Spanish flu than in all the wars of the 20th century combined.
- Outbreaks of the flu tend to be seasonal. The winter is usually called the "flu season."
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*** This page is not to be used as medical advice in any way. Please immediately consult your doctor if you have medical concerns.
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