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Understanding Bird Flu


What is the flu, anyway?

Influenza -- commonly called "flu" -- is a contagious viral infection that normally occurs in late fall and winter months. Unlike a common cold, the flu virus has the potential of causing serious flu symptoms and flu complications. Each year, the flu kills around 36,000 Americans and puts any age group at risk for flu complications.

Spreading through the upper respiratory tract and sometimes invading the lungs, the flu virus can make you very ill for a week or two -- even longer if you get flu complications such as pneumonia or have a chronic medical condition.

Aside from avian or bird flu, what are the other types of flu?

The flu virus is categorized into three types: A, B, and C. Type A flu viruses are responsible for major epidemics. That's because these viruses mutate every few years and are difficult to isolate and eliminate. In addition, the human body cannot develop complete immunity to the type A flu viruses.

Type B flu is a less common form of influenza. Although it normally has a milder effect on the body, it has been responsible for major outbreaks every three to five years. Type C flu is less common. While type C flu virus causes illness, the symptoms of type C flu are the mildest.

How is the flu virus spread?

The flu virus is typically spread from person to person through coughs and sneezes -- that is through "droplets" from the respiratory system. The flu normally enters through the nose and settles inside the respiratory tract.

What are the symptoms of the flu?

Unlike a common cold, the flu hits hard and fast with symptoms of fever (usually high), headache, extreme fatigue, dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, and stomach symptoms, which are more common in children than in adults.

For in-depth information, see WebMD's Flu Symptoms: What You Might Feel.

Who's at greatest risk for catching the flu?

Influenza occurs most commonly in school-age children. Still, the most severe cases of the flu typically occur in infants and older adults.

Should I take antibiotics to fight the flu?

Antibiotics can't cure the flu; they treat bacterial infections and the flu is a viral infection. Sometimes, flu complications, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus and ear infections, occur. If these flu complications are bacterial infections, then antibiotics might be necessary.

For in-depth information, see Flu Treatment: Antibiotics or Not?

There are "antiviral" drugs available that help treat the signs and symptoms of flu if they are taken within the first 48 hours of flu symptoms. The CDC recommends oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza). Both are effective against both influenza A and B viruses.


WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Kimball Johnson, MD on October 27, 2012
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