Influenza is not a common cold but a deadly infectious disease

01 February 2020

Influenza is not a common cold but a deadly infectious disease

When influenza hit Malaysia early this year with a few regions having confirmed cases of influenza A, people panicked and scrambled to get vaccinated, causing a shortage in vaccines. The situation was as if there was a “new” epidemic never seen before when in fact, the flu is lurking around us all the time.

“Influenza is seasonal in countries with four seasons where low temperatures and dry winters can lead to viral mutations. However, countries with tropical climate such as ours, there is no ‘influenza season’, instead it is always ‘peak season’,” said Dr Kow Ken Siong, Consultant Respiratory and Internal Medicine Physician, Sunway Medical Centre.

In other words, influenza is always present and ready to strike especially at the end of the year when the rainy season is at its peak.

“The prolonged rainy season and the start of the school year has accelerated the spread of flu. Based on my past experience, there will be a wave of influenza with more cases and serious illnesses every few years, therefore the vaccine should be taken yearly as a prevention, especially for high-risk groups and caregivers of these groups,” Dr Kow said.

Vaccination as an effective prevention method

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognises vaccination as one of the most effective ways to prevent the disease. Influenza vaccination provides protection for adults and children from different virus strains and helps reduce the risk of disease transmission and complications.

The vaccine available anytime and is not costly although it may vary from hospital to hospital, but generally it is less than RM100. As the virus is constantly changing, getting vaccinated every year is a low cost and effective way of prevention.

If you happen to be in a situation where the vaccine is not available, remember to take the necessary precautions and in the event of early symptoms of flu, consult your doctor as soon as possible for early diagnosis and necessary treatment.

Most influenza patients are mildly ill and will recover slowly after a few days (about 7 to 10 days), therefore bed rest and symptom-relieving medication is used primarily to help patients recover. Meanwhile, more severe and high-risk patients are treated with antiviral medications for influenza.

Seasonal flu is more common

According to the WHO, influenza is classified into seasonal influenza, avian influenza and pandemic influenza. The influenza A outbreak in Malaysia is classified as seasonal influenza. Avian influenza occurs mainly in birds and poultry (chickens, ducks) and usually do not infect other species but if the virus mutates, there is a possibility of humans getting infected. Meanwhile, influenza pandemics occur once every 10 to 50 years when an animal influenza virus (e.g. avian influenza virus) undergoes major genetic changes and develops into a new influenza virus transmitted among humans, leading to a pandemic.

Seasonal influenza is an acute upper respiratory tract viral infection transmitted from person to person and has an incubation period of about 1 to 4 days. It is the most common and frequently occurring influenza, and it can spread globally and infect people from all age groups. Seasonal influenza occurs mainly during winter in temperate climate regions while in tropical regions, it is less seasonal and circulates throughout the year. 

According to the WHO, seasonal influenza that affect humans can be divided into type A, B and C. The seasonal influenza that occurs yearly is type A and B with an incubation period of about 1 to 4 days. Once the symptoms begin, the patient will experience a high fever for 2 to 3 days, cough, runny nose, sore throat, headache, muscle ache and tiredness, which can easily lead to complications such as pneumonia, otitis media, sinusitis, encephalitis and in severe cases, even death.  

The 7 major symptoms of influenza

  • Chest discomfort/cough
  • Sore throat
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sneezing
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Sudden, continuous (3 to 4 days)


Influenza high-risk group

  • Pregnant women
  • Children under 5 years’ old
  • Elderly above 65 years’ old
  • Patients with chronic illnesses (e.g. asthma, heart and lung diseases, diabetes)
  • Immunocompromised persons (e.g. cancer, HIV, chemotherapy patients or those on steroid treatment)
  • People who are regularly exposed to virus transmission areas such as healthcare workers
  • Caregivers for the above high-risk groups (e.g. baby-sitters, elderly caregivers)


4 myths about flu vaccines

Myth #1: I'm young and healthy therefore I don't need to get vaccinated

Being strong and fit doesn’t exempt you from getting vaccinated as anyone can get severe flu. Getting vaccinated not only helps protect you and prevents the spread, it also lowers the risk of the people around you getting infected. Another benefit of the flu vaccine is the herd immunity effect, which has an indirect protective effect to the people around those who have taken the vaccination. The herd immune effect is the true value of vaccines in public health where it cuts the chain of virus transmissions.


Myth 2: Will getting the vaccine cause flu and does it have side effects?

The flu vaccine is highly protective, safe and effective. It is made from a non-infectious and inactive virus, therefore it is not contagious and does not cause the flu. However, it takes one or two weeks for the vaccine to become effective. Many mistakenly assume they get the flu because of the vaccination.

Although the flu vaccine contains the most prevalent virus strain each year, it is possible to get infected by other classes of flu strains because flu viruses are prone to mutation. The influenza vaccine effectiveness also varies from each individual due to the difference in health conditions. Although there is no safe vaccine, the side effects from vaccination is very low and there are generally no side effects other than mild swelling and pain that may occur where the injection is.


Myth 3: Is it better to generate resistance by autoimmunity than by vaccines?

Some have misconceptions about immunity. Thinking that not getting the flu vaccine will improve the body’s immune system or thinking that getting the vaccine will lower their immunity is actually a misconception. In fact, the influenza vaccine comprises antigens that produces antibodies against the influenza virus. Thus, vaccination does not lower one’s immunity.

Furthermore, influenza viruses are more likely to cause serious symptoms compared to the common cold. It is also highly contagious which might cause serious complications in high-risk groups such as infants and the elderly. Therefore, vaccination is not only for the sake of your own health, but also the best way to protect others.

Myth #4: There is no need to get another flu shot this year since I had one last year

The reason you need to be vaccinated every year is because after getting vaccinated, the body increases its antibodies to the flue, but the effectiveness decreases over time. Influenza viruses can mutate rapidly and active strains may change every year, therefore the vaccine is tailored to the most likely virus strains that will emerge each year. Hence, it is recommended to get vaccinated every year in order for the body to resist the influenza virus that is active every year, especially among high-risk groups.


4 best tricks to fight and prevent the flu

Here are a few ways that are scientifically certified and effective against the flu.

1. Vaccination

Do not wait until the flu breaks out before getting vaccinated as it takes a certain amount of time for the vaccine to take effect. The best way to prevent seasonal flu is to get vaccinated annually so your body can produce enough antibodies to fight the flu. The flu in our country is not differentiated seasonally as in four-season countries, therefore the vaccine is available all year round.

2. Wash your hands regularly

Wash your hands frequently with soap to protect yourself from germs and viruses, and don’t forget to dry your hands after. If soap and water is not easily accessible when you go out, bring along an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to disinfect yourself.

3. Wearing a mask and cover your mouth and nose

Seasonal influenza is transmitted through droplets, which spreads easily and quickly. An infected person should wear a mask or at least cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing to avoid spreading droplets containing the virus into the air, causing people around them to become infected as well.

4. Good lifestyle practices

A good lifestyle including regular exercise, having a balanced diet, adequate sleep and drinking plenty of water helps boost immunity and prevent the flu.