Flu: The Quintessential Common Cold Virus

Getty Images photo of an icon with a fist in the middle surrounded by stars and two syringes saying, "KNOCK OUT THE FLU," on the top half and "GET THE SHOT," on the bottom half.

Each year around fall, the ever-evolving influenza virus begins its descent, leaving millions of people suffering from its grim symptoms.

While most experience a “common cold,” which can be caused by more than 200 different viruses, the “flu” is an abbreviation for influenza. This respiratory virus is dreaded for its ability to spread rapidly through communities. When someone with the flu coughs or sneezes, the influenza virus is expelled into the air, and anyone who inhales it can become infected. The virus can also be spread if someone touches a contaminated hard surface such as a door handle and then places their hand on their mouth or nose.

Flu symptoms include a sudden fever (usually above 101° F), chills and body shakes, headache, body ache, weakness, dry cough, and runny nose. After the first few days of these symptoms, a sore throat, stuffy nose and continuing cough remain. The flu virus can infect both the upper and lower respiratory tract, which explains its ability to cause severe disease. Different people infected with the flu experience varying illness. For instance, children, old people, and people with weakened immune systems are more prone to the illness. Other secondary bacterial infections may follow after the flu. Children with the flu—or adults, for that matter—usually feel much sicker, achier, and more miserable.

CDC reports indicate flu activity remained low in the United States in 2017, but it is increasing. 2017 has been a pretty bad year for flu in Australia. More than 160,000 people have been confirmed to have the flu this year, ranging from mild to severe. In Southern Asia, flu activity remained low in general, however, some strains were continually detected in India as per WHO reports.

The flu can wreck not only the person but also impact the economy. In the U.S. in 2015-2016 an estimated 24.5 million people were stricken with flu, resulting in 11 million medical visits, 308,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths. The annual direct cost for hospitalizations and outpatient visits is an estimated $10.4 billion.

The Flu vaccine or commonly referred to as the “flu shot” is the best protection you can get against the flu. Flu shot is given by injection every year. There are two types of inactivated flu vaccine based on the number of flu virus strains it contains: A trivalent (3 strains) and a quadrivalent (4 strains) vaccine. There is no preference for the use of either of these formulations. Any of these vaccines should be given as available in your area. The ideal time to take the vaccine is before the fall season starts. In the 2016-2016 flu season, the CDC estimates that the flu vaccine prevented 5 million illnesses. Even though the effectiveness of the flu shot is not 100%, it is the best shot at protection that we have against the flu. During the 2015-16 season, vaccine effectiveness was 47%, but for the 2014-15 season, effectiveness was just 19%, according to the CDC. Vaccine effectiveness varies based on how well it matches the circulating virus strains.

This year’s flu shot might be imperfect, but it is “our best protection” against the havoc of the flu.