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Each winter, millions of people suffer from the unpleasant effects of the "flu." For most people, a few days in bed, a few more days of rest, aspirin, and plenty to drink will be the best treatment.

Flu - the short name for influenza - is usually a mild disease in healthy children, young adults and middle-aged people. However, flu can be life-threatening in older people and in those of any age who have chronic illnesses (such as heart disease, emphysema, asthma, bronchitis, kidney disease, and diabetes).

By lowering a person’s resistance, flu may allow more serious infections to occur, especially pneumonia. It is easy to confuse a common cold with influenza. An important difference is that flu causes fever, which is usually absent during a cold. Also, a stuffy nose occurs more often with a cold than with the flu. Cold symptoms generally are milder and don’t last as long as symptoms of the flu.

Flu is a viral infection of the nose, throat, and lungs. It spreads quickly from one person to another, particularly in crowded places such as buses, theaters, hospitals, and schools. Because of its ability to spread rapidly, flu was once believed to be caused by the influence of the stars and planets. In the 1500’s, the Italians gave the disease the name “influenza,” their word for influence.

Not until the 1930’s and 1940’s did scientists discover that flu is caused by ever changing types of viruses. These tiny parasites enter animals and humans and begin to grow rapidly. Disease appears when their number is too large for the body’s immune system to fight off immediately. The flu can be passed easily from one person to another. When someone infected with the flu coughs or sneezes, droplets with the virus each another person, entering their body through the respiratory system. There, the viruses can multiply and cause flu.

Flu symptoms can differ from person to person. Sometimes flu will cause no obvious symptoms. Often, however, the patient will feel weak and will develop a cough, a headache and a sudden rise in temperature. Fever can last anywhere from one to six days. Other symptoms include aching muscles, chills, and red, watery eyes.

Flu is rarely a fatal illness. But while the immune system is busy fighting off the flu, a person is less able to resist a second infection. If this second infection is in the lungs, it can be life-threatening. Older people and people with chronic diseases have the greatest risk of developing secondary infections. The most serious of these is pneumonia, one of the five leading causes of death among people sixty-five and older.

Preventing flu is hard because flu viruses change all the time and in unpredictable ways. This year’s virus usually is slightly different from the last year’s. Therefore, flu shots are effective for only one year. Vaccination remains the most commonly used method of preventing influenza. An antiviral drug, amantadine, is also recommended to prevent and treat many types of influenza, particularly in high-risk people. In addition, the usual treatment for the aches and pains is to take over the counter pain killers, drink plenty of fluids, and stay in bed until the fever has been gone for one or two days.