The influenza viruses are a family of viruses that cause the illness widely known as the Flu. This illness is characterized by fever, runny nose, sore throat, cough, muscle aches and a generalized feeling of being unwell (malaise). It is a self limiting illness with full recovery in the majority of the population but in the very old, very young and those with chronic medical problems such as diabetes, lung and heart illnesses, the flu can be life-threatening.
Since we all know prevention is better than cure we try to prevent the flu in those people who would tend to get severe attacks as listed above. The most effective way is by vaccination once a year with the flu vaccine that has been prepared specifically against the likely strains of Influenza virus for that year. This is a very safe vaccine (even in pregnancy and nursing mothers) with rare side effects other than in those allergic to eggs or with a previous medical history of Guillain-Barre syndrome (an uncommon neurological condition ). The flu vaccine does not 100% guarantee not getting the Flu but it should at the minimum reduce the severity of the illness should it occur.
Although the shot can be given any time during the flu season which runs from November through April, the optimal time for vaccination is the period from October to Mid-November. The vaccination is done during this interval because the Flu illness tends to peak between late December and early March and it usually takes 1-2 weeks after vaccination for antibody against influenza to develop and provide protection. The Flu shot is generally recommended for: all adults older than 65 and anybody from age 6months and above with chronic diseases of the heart, lung, kidney, diabetes, post-transplant, cancer, sickle cell anemia etc. Other groups for whom the vaccination is also strongly recommended are healthcare workers or individuals who by the nature of their job or dwelling will have extensive contact with the elderly population. It is equally advised that the flu shot should be given to any person who wishes to reduce the likelihood of becoming ill with influenza. Persons who provide essential community services should be considered for vaccination to minimize disruption of essential activities during influenza outbreaks.
In patients who have been exposed to a person with the flu and are at risk of getting a severe attack several anti-viral medications may be given to prevent an attack or at least minimize it's effects. These medications are not without side-effects which is why they are not routinely given to the healthy population. In those patients who have the flu treatment usually consists of bed rest, fluids and a variety of cold and fever medicines. Consideration may be given to antibiotic treatment if it is felt that there has been a secondary infection by bacteria which require definitive treatment. Finally proper personal hygiene (handwashing, appropriate disposal of tissuesetc.) with adequate ventilation go a long way to preventing the spread of the Flu.