What the flu is may surprise you. It’s not one single virus. There are several types and frequent mutations. That’s why you need to get a flu shot every year.
The odds are you, or someone you know, has had the flu at some time or another. Also called influenza, the flu is a common, contagious respiratory infection.
It primarily causes symptoms in the nose, throat, and lungs — including cough, congestion, running nose, chills, fever, muscle aches, fatigue, and headaches. A case of the flu can be fairly mild or downright miserable. For seniors, young children, pregnant women, and people with weak immune systems or chronic diseases, sometimes the flu can be serious and even deadly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out.
It’s important to understand that there are different types of flu. What’s more, the flu, which typically strikes in late fall and winter, frequently mutates. So, flu vaccines are “tweaked” annually to offer protection from the latest strains of flu expected to strike the populace during what is commonly called “flu season.” That’s why it’s important to get a flu shot every year.
Understanding flu viruses
There are four types of influenza (flu) viruses: A, B, C, and D. Types A and B cause seasonal outbreaks of the infections best known as simply “the flu.” Type C typically results in mild forms of influenza. Type D influenza affects animals, primarily cattle, but is not known to infect humans.
Influenza A viruses are in several ways the most problematic type of the flu. They are the only varieties of influenza known to cause global flu epidemics. This occurs when a new subtype of influenza A virus develops through mutations and not only infects people but also is typically highly contagious, spreading quickly from country to country, the CDC explains. (It is important to note that “the flu” is not the COVID-19 virus).
A case in point: In the spring of 2009, a new influenza A (H1N1) variant was detected in the U.S. Researchers discovered the virus, officially called influenza A (H1N1)pdm09, contained influenza genes never seen before in flu strains previously known to infect people or animals. Laboratory testing, however, revealed the virus contained gene segments similar to influenza viruses that had been most recently identified in, and known to circulate among, pigs — so this flu stained referred to as “swine flu.” It quickly spread throughout the U.S. to other countries, primarily sickening children and young people.
Although the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the global H1N1 swine flu pandemic over in August of 2010, the (H1N1)pdm09 virus continues to circulate as a seasonal flu virus. The good news is flu vaccines are regularly updated to match flu viruses that might be circulating, including the (H1N1)pdm09 variant.
Can you catch the flu from animals?
In all, there are over a hundred type A influenza virus subtypes that have been identified, so far, in nature. The main subtypes that circulate in the human population include influenza A H1N1 and H3N2 subtypes. Other type A flu viruses are found in many different animals, including ducks, chickens, pigs, whales, horses, and seals.
While the flu viruses found in animals don’t normally infect humans, there have been some notable, if relatively rare, exceptions. Scientists call these “variant viruses” sporadic human infection with a flu virus that normally infects only animals. Most human infections with variant virus have occurred in people who worked closely with sick pigs infected with various forms of swine flu viruses.
Zoonotic influenza refers to flu caused by animal influenza viruses that cross from animal to humans, the WHO explains. In addition to the swine flu virus subtypes that can infect people, types of “bird flu” — avian influenza virus subtypes A(H5N1) and A(H9N2) — have been reported.
Thankfully, the so-called bird flu is very rare and, in most cases, has not been passed from person to person, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) points out. In case that should change, scientists are working on new vaccines that will offer protection.
It’s important to note that, while other animal species, including dogs and horses, sometimes contract their own varieties of flu viruses, these forms of influenza are distinctly different from the human flu and not something pet owners need to fear catching.
Bottom line? The best way to protect yourself from the flu is to wash your hands frequently, avoid people who are sick and — most importantly — get a flu shot. The optimum time get the flu vaccine is by the end of October because it takes at least two weeks for the shot to start working, according to the NIH.
June 15, 2022
Janet O’Dell, RN