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As temperatures drop, and families return from the festive break to resume their normal routine, there is an increased chance of either spreading or contracting a winter respiratory illness like influenza, more commonly known as the flu.
Doctors speaking to Khaleej Times explained the causes, types, high-risk groups, tips to prevent getting infected and more.
Influenza is a viral infection that affects the upper respiratory system, which includes the nose, throat and lungs. In most cases, while the illness is not serious, and patients are able to recover without any medical intervention, there are some age groups who are more at risk of developing serious complications. In patients who are likely to develop a serious infection, the illness has the potential of becoming life-threatening, therefore precautionary measures and strategies are critical when it comes to protecting vulnerable members of society.
There are three common influenza strains that infect humans, the others are only transmitted among animals. The culprits behind the uptick of seasonal influenza are influenza A and influenza B. These strains infect humans and cause the spread of the virus during winter, while infections brought on during other times of the year can be attributed to the influenza C virus.
Dr Imadeddin Barakat, internal medicine specialist, Danat Al Emarat Hospital for Women and Children, said that although influenza is considered a minor illness in most cases, there are some people who are at higher risk of contracting the disease and developing severe complications than others.
“These population groups include children under the age of two, the elderly over the age of 65, healthcare workers in hospitals and long-term care facilities, pregnant women, immunocompromised individuals who suffer from chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma, heart, kidney and liver diseases, in addition to individuals combating obesity. All of these groups are at a higher risk of catching the virus and developing a serious illness,” Dr Barakat said.
Dr Imad Salman, family medicine consultant at Healthpoint, noted that the best way to prevent seasonal influenza is to get vaccinated annually.
“The flu vaccine is the best way to avoid complications. Although getting vaccinated does not prevent infection and symptoms completely, it is an effective option to reduce complications when exposed to the virus. Other tips to reduce the chances of infection include avoiding close contact with infected people, staying at home when experiencing flu-like symptoms to prevent spreading the illness to others, covering the mouth and nose when coughing, washing hands frequently and avoiding touching the eyes, nose, and mouth, in addition to practicing general hygiene and sterilization routines.”
Dr Salman underlined that the spread of infection occurs through coughing, sneezing, and talking when in close proximity to others. Children play a significant role in the indirect spread of the virus within communities and families. From touching surfaces with respiratory droplets from an infected person, and by not washing their hands as often as they should, children can accelerate the spread of the virus. Influenza is most likely to be spread by infected individuals during the first to third day of infection, when symptoms are more visible.
“We advise patients to go get the flu vaccine even if they have been previously infected during the same season. There are lots of benefits to getting vaccinated. When an individual receives the vaccine, 14 days afterwards, their immune system reaches its optimum stage for protection against the virus, lasting until the end of the flu season,” Dr Salman said.
Dr Sana Dhouibi, family medicine general practitioner at HealthPlus Family Clinics, said that taking a flu shot during pregnancy is safe and can reduce the risk of influenza.
“A pregnant woman who contracts the flu is at a higher risk of developing severe complications than non-pregnant patients. Therefore, women who are planning to become pregnant should take the seasonal flu vaccine to avoid potential complications during pregnancy. Even during pregnancy, the vaccine is safe to take since it will help build immunity, which will eventually reduce the chances of developing complications and the need for hospitalisation.”
Dr Dhouibi highlighted that for people with diabetes, influenza usually causes high blood sugar levels as well as changes in appetite and eating habits.
“A person with diabetes and experiencing flu-like symptoms should constantly monitor blood sugar levels and seek medical advice should they change. We would encourage everyone to get the seasonal flu vaccine, particularly pregnant women, patients with chronic diseases, and children aged six months and above.”
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