Influenza; when to seek medical attention

All age groups can be affected by influenza. / Net photo

Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is an illness that is sometimes overlooked because in some cases, it can dwindle before one even takes any medication. However, medical experts say that at times, if one delays to get medication, it may result in other complications, such as, pneumonia and bronchitis, among others.

Dr Joseph Ryarasa Nkurunziza, the chairperson of Heath Development Initiative, says influenza is a serious disease. It is a viral infection that attacks the respiratory system, nose, throat and lungs.

He says symptoms range from headache, coughing, runny nose, sore throat, aching muscles, chills and sweats, fatigue and weakness, and nasal congestion, among others.

“Influenza can make one miserable. It mostly makes children feel weak and even lose appetite. Children, old people, pregnant women and those with a weak immune system are vulnerable to it,” Nkurunziza says.

He explains that flu spreads as airborne respiratory droplets, touching a contaminated surface and by saliva through kissing and sharing drinks. If influenza is not treated, it can become severe and even kill, in most cases if the person develops pneumonia.

According to World Health Organization (WHO), all age groups can be affected by influenza, but there are groups that are more at risk than others. People at greater risk of severe disease or complications when infected are; pregnant women, children under the age of five, the elderly, individuals with chronic medical conditions (such as chronic cardiac, pulmonary, renal, metabolic, neurodevelopmental, liver or hematologic diseases) and individuals with immunosuppressive conditions (such as HIV/AIDS, receiving chemotherapy or steroids).

WHO also notes that healthcare workers are at high risk of acquiring the influenza virus infection due to increased exposure to the patients, and risk further spread, particularly to vulnerable individuals.

Nkurunziza says high-risk children and adults may develop complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma flare-ups, heart problems, ear infections, among others.

Dr Iba Mayele, an obstetrician gynecologist at Clinic Galien, Kimironko says flu is serious for pregnant women, and poses a risk to their babies as well. It can cause serious problems, but changes in the immune system, heart, and lungs during pregnancy make pregnant women (and women up to two weeks postpartum) more prone to severe illness from flu, including illness resulting in hospitalisation. 

WHO says the majority of cases of human influenza are clinically diagnosed. However, during periods of low influenza activity and outside of epidemics situations, the infection of other respiratory viruses like, rhinovirus, respiratory syncytial virus, parainfluenza and adenovirus can also present as influenza-like illness, which makes the clinical differentiation of influenza from other pathogens difficult.

“The most effective way to prevent the disease is vaccination. Safe and effective vaccines are available and have been used for more than 60 years. Immunity from vaccination wanes over time so annual vaccination is recommended to protect against influenza. Injected inactivated influenza vaccines are most commonly used throughout the world,” says WHO.

WHO recommends annual vaccination for pregnant women at any stage of pregnancy, children aged between six months to five years, elderly individuals (over 65 years), individuals with chronic medical conditions and healthcare workers.

Mayele says if one gets sick with flu-like symptoms, they should call the doctor right away. There are antiviral drugs that can treat flu illness and prevent serious flu complications. Some doctors recommend prompt treatment for people who have influenza infection or suspected influenza infection and who are at high risk of serious flu complications, such as people with asthma, diabetes (including gestational diabetes), or heart disease.

Early treatment of influenza in hospitalised pregnant women has been shown to reduce the length of the hospital stay.

Nkurunziza notes, flu can be treated by one taking care of the cough, treating the aches and fever, drinking plenty of water, using a humidifier and seeking medical attention if one develops a fever.

“Treatment should begin as soon as possible because antiviral drugs work best when started early (within 48 hours after symptoms start). Antiviral drugs can make flu illness milder and make one feel better faster. They may also prevent serious health problems that can result from flu illness,” Mayele states.

He further says antiviral drugs require a prescription from the doctor, but having a fever caused by flu infection or other infections early in pregnancy may be linked to birth defects in a baby.

According to Mayo Clinic, in order to control the spread of the infection, wash your hands frequently with water and soap, cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough and avoid crowds. Flu spreads easily wherever people congregate.

For home remedies, Mayele says, drink a lot of water, natural juice and other healthy drinks, rest enough, and consider pain relievers.