Who's at higher risk of developing influenza?

Which family members are at higher risk of developing influenza, and how do you reduce this risk?

Viral influenza, more commonly known as the flu, has been around for centuries, and we've become very "used" to the illness. However, it is important to realise that influenza can be dangerous.

With the A (H1N1) pandemic now in the past, people tend to forget that "seasonal" influenza still exists.

The flu can strike anyone; nevertheless, certain groups of people suffer more severe illness, and may even be prone to complications of influenza.

Who's at an increased risk?

There are a few factors that could increase you or your family's risk of developing influenza or complications from it, including:

  • Age - Influenza complications are worse in young children, especially those aged two years and below; and the elderly, those aged 65 years and above.
  • Chronic illnesses - The risk of influenza complications increases if you suffer from chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, or heart problems; even obesity is a risk factor.
  • Weakened immune system - Caused by conditions such as cancer or HIV, which makes it easier to fall prey to influenza, and also increases your chances of complications.
  • Occupation - Healthcare workers and childcare personnel are more likely to come into contact with those who suffer from influenza, and are also more likely to transmit the virus to others under their care.
  • Living conditions - Residents of nursing homes, or other facilities that have many people, eg day-care centres, may increase the chances of contracting influenza.
  • Pregnancy - It is more likely for pregnant women to develop influenza, especially those in their second and third trimesters.

Complications that could arise

Complications that may arise from influenza include middle ear infections, neurological problems, heart inflammation, as well as pulmonary diseases like bronchitis and pneumonia.

Another common cause of complications is pneumococcal infection, which, after lying dormant in the nasopharynx, may spread and occupy the lung tissue, causing pneumonia.

Under certain conditions, such as a weakened immune system due to influenza, the bacteria can invade various other parts of the body, causing pneumococcal diseases.

The most common disease caused by the pneumococcus bacteria is lung infection, which, if left untreated, could spread to other parts of the body, including the middle ear, nervous system, and even the blood.

The presence of the bacteria in blood is known as bacteraemia, while inflammation of the brain covering and spinal cord is called meningitis. Both can be deadly, and babies and toddlers fall into the high-risk groups of contracting these diseases.

Highly contagious

Influenza is highly contagious, and is easily spread from person to person, mainly through droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or even talks.

The influenza virus can also spread when an infected person touches a surface or object, and the contaminated surface is touched by another. This can happen easily in day-care centres or nurseries, as children often play with the same toys, or use the same utensils.

Common symptoms include:

  • Sudden fever
  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches
  • Chills and shakes
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Dry cough and/or sore throat
  • Loss of appetite

The key to prevention

The first step - a flu vaccine - is the most important step you can take in the prevention of flu viruses. Flu viruses can mutate quite fast, producing strains that are resistant to the vaccine.

The most recent 2011-2012 flu vaccine protects against three of the most common flu virus types - influenza A (H3N2 and H1N1) and influenza B. It is best that everyone aged six months and older gets vaccinated against the flu annually.

Rest assured that there are no side effects from the vaccination, except for minor ones like swelling and redness at the injection site. In some people, a slight fever may develop. This vaccine has been proven safe, even for pregnant women.

Children younger than six months of age are at a high risk of serious flu illnesses; but because they are too young to get vaccinated, the people who care for them or live around them, should get vaccinated to protect them.

If you or your family have been infected with the flu, the doctor may prescribe you with antiviral drugs.

These antivirals are different from antibiotics, and come in the form of liquid, pills or an inhaled powder. They can make the illness milder, while speeding up your recovery period.

To prevent serious flu complications, it is important that you take these antivirals early on in the course of the illness (within the first two days of symptoms), especially if you are at risk of serious illness.

If you are purchasing medicines like cough suppressants, decongestants or antihistamines from the pharmacy, be mindful to read the warnings on all product labels, and take note of the active ingredients inside. Many cough and cold medicines have the same ingredients, so it is possible to overdose unless you are careful.

If you are in doubt, consult a doctor.

Cleanliness is a must!

It is also important that you help prevent the spread of germs that cause respiratory illnesses by taking precautionary steps daily.

Basic hygiene and cleanliness should be on top of the list:

  • Always cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water; use a hand sanitiser if these are not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, as germs can easily spread this way.
  • Try to avoid close contact with those who are sick, and stay at home if you are sick to avoid spreading the flu.
  • Keep infants away from people who are unwell, and crowded places.Avoid taking them with you when visiting relatives and friends in the hospital.

With its almost constant presence in Malaysia, it is important to protect yourself and your family by getting a "head start" on the virus.

Lead a healthy and clean lifestyle, and ensure that the whole family gets vaccinated every year, which is by far the best and safest way to ensure that you are protected from the flu virus.

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