What Is Flu?
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What Is Flu?

The flu, or influenza, is a viral disease of the respiratory tract -- the nose, throat, bronchial tubes and lungs -- and is highly contagious.

Flu Is Contagious

Flu is spread though airborne droplets of moisture produced by coughs or sneezes. When you breathe these germs in through your nose or mouth, you may come down with the flu, generally within one to three days of being exposed.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 10 to 20 percent of Americans fall victim to influenza outbreaks every year, although rates of infection vary among age groups and from one season to another. Outbreaks frequently start in school-age children, who carry the virus home and to other group activities.

Flu Can Be Deadly

On average, approximately 20,000 Americans die from the complications of influenza each year. And since 1985, the U.S. death rate from influenza has actually risen every year. This increase may be the result of better tracking, monitoring and reporting of flu outbreaks and deaths, but also because of the aging of our population. Older people are more susceptible to contracting influenza and suffering from its potential complications, as are children, people with compromised immune systems, and individuals with chronic illnesses such as heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes.

In addition, your risk for respiratory infections is increased by exposure to cigarette smoke, which can injure airways and damage the cilia, tiny hair-like structures that help keep the airways clear. Toxic fumes, industrial smoke and other air pollutants also are risk factors.

There is new evidence that influenza can be more dangerous for women who are in their second or third trimester of pregnancy. The strain and stress of pregnancy on a woman's lungs, combined with the type of influenza, can lead to pulmonary problems, for example. There is no danger to the fetus from the influenza virus itself, however.

The most serious, often life-threatening complication of the flu is pneumonia. Other complications include ear infection, bronchitis, chronic lung disease and fever-related convulsions. Croup and a lung disease called bronchiolitis can arise as complications in infants and young children.

The good news is that the flu is preventable if you get vaccinated. The influenza vaccination is safe for most pregnant women and other groups, though you should talk to your health care professional first before getting a flu shot. If you don't get the vaccination, or if you come down with the flu despite being vaccinated, new medications are now available that can shorten the duration of those miserable flu symptoms -- if you get to your health care professional as soon as symptoms appear for diagnosis and a prescription.