North America's first death from the H5N1 virus, also known as avian or bird flu, was reported in Alberta today, contracted by a victim who had just returned from China. While officials have been quick to reassure Canadians that this was an isolated incident and not related to the seasonal flu, this potentially fatal illness has many wondering about the symptoms of this influenza.
Most avian flu viruses do not infect humans, but some, like the highly pathogenic H5N1, can cause severe infections, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
When the H5N1 strain of bird flu appears in humans, it mimics a severe case of the flu, like H1N1 (swine flu). Flu.gov, the U.S. site for flu information, notes that symptoms of H5N1 in humans include:
- Fever and cough
- Acute respiratory distress
- Shortness of breath/difficulty breathing
- Abdominal pain
Symptoms usually appear within two to five days of infection, according to the Mayo Clinic. Runny nose, muscle aches, sore throat and general malaise may also be symptoms.
The diagnosis of H5N1 based on symptoms alone is difficult because they are so similar to other flu strains; laboratory testing is required to confirm infection, according to the the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
The bird flu is generally spread to people through direct contact with infected birds or poultry livestock. The H5N1 virus can live in the environment for extended periods, but cannot be contracted by eating properly handled, cooked poultry or eggs, and thus far has not shown any sign of spreading easily from person to person, though that is always a likelihood, warns the CDC. As the Lung Association notes, there has been limited transmission in the case of long-term contact with sick relatives.
Complications from the avian flu include a range of severe illnesses, including:
- Respiratory failure
- Altered mental state
- Failure of multiple organs (e.g. kidney failure)
If you suspect you may be infected with H5N1, seek medical help immediately. The CDC suggests wearing a mask and letting your health professional know about any places you may have travelled recently.
Cases of H5N1 infected poultry stock have thus far only been found in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. And though transmission to humans is rare, it has occurred in at least 600 cases since 2003, resulting from people handling sick or dead birds infected with the virus, or being in their environments.
Myth: The Flu Shot Can Give You The Flu
<strong>Fact:</strong> This myth just will not die. So let's clear this up: You <em>cannot</em> get the flu from your flu shot. Why? That vaccine is made from a dead or inactive virus that can no longer spread its fever-spiking properties. <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/cs-cold-flu-pictures-myths/colds-and-flu-whats-true.aspx#/slide-4">In rare cases, a person may experience a reaction to the shot</a> that includes a low-grade fever, but these reactions are not <em>The Flu</em>, Everyday Health reported. Note: Even though the flu shot cannot cause the flu, there are a number of other <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/cold-and-flu/flu-vaccines.aspx">reasons not to get the vaccine</a>, including for some people with an allergy to eggs or a history of Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Myth: If You've Already Had Your Shot, You Are Guaranteed To Be Flu-Free
<strong>Fact:</strong> Unfortunately, even after slapping a bandage on that injection site, you <a href="http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/vaccineeffect.htm">may only be about 60 percent protected</a>, according to the CDC. That means, yes, you <a href="http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/01/08/168814935/can-you-get-a-flu-shot-and-still-get-the-flu">can still get the flu after your shot</a>. Some people may be exposed to the flu in the two weeks it takes for the vaccine to take effect, reports NPR. Others might be exposed to a strain not covered in the vaccine, which is made each year <a href="http://www.flu.gov/prevention-vaccination/vaccination/index.html">based on the viruses experts predict will be the most common</a>, according to Flu.gov. (This year's batch seems to have been matched well to what is actually going around, NPR reports.)
Myth: Antibiotics Can Fight The Flu
<strong>Fact:</strong> Plain and simply, antibiotics fight <em>bacteria</em>, not viruses. The flu -- and colds, for that matter -- are caused by viruses. In fact, <a href="http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/ucm078494.htm">antibiotics kill off the "good" bacteria</a> that help to fight off infections, so that viral flu may only get <em>worse</em>.
Myth: The Stomach Flu Is A Type Of Influenza
<strong>Fact:</strong> Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, while often dubbed the "stomach flu," are <a href="http://www.flu.gov/about_the_flu/seasonal/">not typically symptoms of seasonal influenza</a>, which, first and foremost, is a respiratory disease, according to Flu.gov. The flu can sometimes cause these issues, but they won't usually be the <em>main</em> symptoms -- and are more common signs of seasonal flu in children than adults.
Myth: If You're Young And Healthy, You Don't Need The Shot
<strong>Fact:</strong> Younger, healthy adults aren't among the <a href="http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/flushot.htm#high-risk">people the CDC urges most strongly to get vaccinated</a>, like pregnant women, people over 65 and those with certain chronic medical conditions. The young and healthy will more often than not recover just fine from the flu, with or without the shot. But protecting yourself even if you don't think you need protecting can actually be an act of good. The <a href="http://healthland.time.com/2011/10/13/no-excuses-a-brief-guide-to-the-flu-shot/">more people are vaccinated, the fewer cases of flu we all pass around</a>, which in turn offers greater protection to those at-risk groups.
Myth: You Can Get The Flu From Being In The Cold Without A Coat (Or With Wet Hair)
<strong>Fact:</strong> Mom or Grandma probably told you this one at some point, and while you might not feel so cozy if you head out the door straight from the shower, doing so doesn't exactly condemn you to bed. <a href="http://www.health.harvard.edu/flu-resource-center/10-flu-myths.htm">The <em>only</em> way to catch the flu is to come into contact with the virus</a> that causes it. That might happen <em>while</em> you are outside in the cold, and flu season does certainly happen during cold weather, but it's not because you're cold that you catch the bug.
Myth: There's No Treatment For The Flu
<strong>Fact:</strong> It's not antibiotics that cure-seekers should be looking for. While the two antiviral drugs available to fight the flu aren't a quick fix, they <em>can</em> <a href="http://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/features/top-13-flu-myths?page=2">reduce the length of your bout of the flu and make you less contagious</a> to others, according to WebMD. This year's earlier-than-usual flu season has already led to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/10/flu-vaccine-shortage-tamiflu-_n_2448519.html">shortages of one of the drugs, Tamiflu</a>, in the children's liquid formulation, according to the medication's manufacturers. However, a number of experts in countries around the world have questioned Tamiflu's efficacy in fighting the flu, and some have even <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/12/tamiflu-evidence-british-medical-journal-cochrane_n_2117287.html">suggested a boycott until further data is published</a>.