Influenza Signs & Clinical Symptoms
Symptoms of influenza can start quite suddenly one to two days after infection. Usually the first symptoms are chills or a chilly sensation, but fever is also common early in the infection, with body temperatures ranging from 38-39 °C (approximately 100-103 °F). Many people are so ill that they are confined to bed for several days, with aches and pains throughout their bodies, which are worse in their backs and legs. Symptoms of influenza may include:
In children, gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea and abdominal pain, (may be severe in children with influenza B). It can be difficult to distinguish between the common cold and influenza in the early stages of these infections, but a flu can be identified by a high fever with a sudden onset and extreme fatigue. Diarrhea is not normally a symptom of influenza in adults, although it has been seen in some human cases of the H5N1 "bird flu" and can be a symptom in children. The symptoms most reliably seen in influenza are shown in the table to the right.
Since antiviral drugs are effective in treating influenza if given early (see treatment section, below), it can be important to identify cases early. Of the symptoms listed above, the combinations of fever with cough, sore throat and/or nasal congestion can improve diagnostic accuracy. Two decision analysis studies suggest that during local outbreaks of influenza, the prevalence will be over 70%, and thus patients with any of these combinations of symptoms may be treated with neuraminidase inhibitors without testing. Even in the absence of a local outbreak, treatment may be justified in the elderly during the influenza season as long as the prevalence is over 15%.
The available laboratory tests for influenza continue to improve. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains an up-to-date summary of available laboratory tests. According to the CDC, rapid diagnostic tests have a sensitivity of 70–75% and specificity of 90–95% when compared with viral culture. These tests may be especially useful during the influenza season (prevalence=25%) but in the absence of a local outbreak, or peri-influenza season (prevalence=10%).
Prognosis of Influenza Infection
Influenza's effects are much more severe and last longer than those of the common cold. Most people will recover completely in about one to two weeks, but others will develop life-threatening complications (such as pneumonia). Influenza, thus, can be deadly, especially for the weak, young and old, or chronically ill. People with a weak immune system, such as people with advanced HIV infection or transplant patients (whose immune systems are medically suppressed to prevent transplant organ rejection), suffer from particularly severe disease. Other high-risk groups include pregnant women and young children.
The flu can worsen chronic health problems. People with emphysema, chronic bronchitis or asthma may experience shortness of breath while they have the flu, and influenza may cause worsening of coronary heart disease or congestive heart failure. Smoking is another risk factor associated with more serious disease and increased mortality from influenza.
According to the World Health Organization: "Every winter, tens of millions of people get the flu. Most are only ill and out of work for a week, yet the elderly are at a higher risk of death from the illness. We know the worldwide death toll exceeds a few hundred thousand people a year, but even in developed countries the numbers are uncertain, because medical authorities don't usually verify who actually died of influenza and who died of a flu-like illness." Even healthy people can be affected, and serious problems from influenza can happen at any age. People over 50 years old, very young children and people of any age with chronic medical conditions are more likely to get complications from influenza, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus, and ear infections.
In some cases, an autoimmune response to an influenza infection may contribute to the development of Guillain-Barré syndrome. However, as many other infections can increase the risk of this disease, influenza may only be an important cause during epidemics. This syndrome can also be a rare side effect of influenza vaccines, with an incidence of about one case per million vaccinations.