Bird Flu: Should You Be Concerned?

Differentiate between traditional flu strains and bird flu

Two concerned patients have an engaging discussion with their physician in a clinical setting

by Linda Good, RN

It’s flu season again — time for coughing, aching, lying in bed all day and just generally feeling rotten. For most of us, the flu lasts about a week or so, then life gets back to normal.

However, for young children, the elderly, and people with chronic diseases or weakened immune systems, the flu can increase the risk of serious medical complications.

And to make matters worse, public health officials warn that a new strain of the flu virus, commonly called bird flu by the media, could make for an especially severe flu season this year. Not only is this strain unusually strong, but because it is new, most people have no natural immunity to it.

Why "bird flu"?

Birds have historically been the primary source of flu viruses. Viruses change, and as they do, they can pass from birds to humans and other animals.

A gradual change in a virus that takes place over time is called a drift, while a sudden, dramatic change is a shift. Flu vaccines are changed each year to reflect drift; however, a shift can happen so abruptly that few people are immune to the new virus and no vaccine can be prepared in time.

If the new virus spreads easily from person to person, a flu pandemic can result.

Pandemics are marked by extremely high mortality rates, where the number of flu-related deaths is much higher than expected. In 1918-1919, the Spanish flu set the record for the most flu-related deaths, killing at least 50,000 people in the United States and 20 million worldwide.

Pandemics in the 1950s and 1960s also killed thousands in the U.S., although the victims were mostly the elderly and chronically ill.

The ultimate impact of a flu virus depends on its virulence, or ability to cause severe illness or death, as well as whether people are immune to it. Because people have no immunity to viruses they’ve never been exposed to before, their bodies can’t fight back like they normally would.

The good news: prevention

Fortunately, flu pandemics are rare, and in recent years, flu shots have helped many people ward off illness. To date, however, there is no vaccine available to prevent this newest strain of bird flu. But don’t panic.

You can help keep yourself and your family healthy by taking a few simple steps to help prevent flu viruses — old and new — from catching you.

The flu virus spreads when droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze reach a healthy person’s eyes, nose or mouth. You may become infected if someone sneezes or coughs near you, or if you touch an object that a sick person has recently touched, then transfer the germs to your eyes, nose or mouth.

If you have a habit of rubbing your eyes, chewing your fingernails or otherwise touching your face, try to break it. The less you touch your face, the less likely you are to give yourself someone else’s germs.

Moreover, wash your hands frequently to rid them of germs you may pick up on shared objects like doorknobs, railings, remote controls and shopping cart handles. If someone in your home is sick, try to stay a few feet away from them, don’t share objects like glasses, towels or bedding, and be sure to wash your hands often.

If you do get sick

Few of us need a list of symptoms to know that we’ve got the flu. The abrupt onset of chills, fever, muscle aches, sore throat and cough are telltale signs. If you or someone in your family develops them, let your doctor know. He or she needs to keep track of flu cases, and may also be able to recommend ways to relieve your symptoms.

While you are ill, take extra care to keep your germs to yourself. If you’re coughing and sneezing, do yourself — and your colleagues or classmates — a favor and stay home from work or school. The rest will help you recover sooner, and you’ll be less likely to infect others.

This Scripps Health and Wellness information was provided by Linda Good, RN, who is in charge of employee health at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.