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December 11, 2003

Wash your hands

Want to avoid the flu? Go wash your hands right now.

Influenza is one of the most easily transmitted diseases, caused by a range of related viruses. It relies on human habits -- most notably the tendency to rub a runny nose.

The virus can live on a plastic or metal surface for hours or even days. When a patient touches a drippy nose and then pushes a button or uses a telephone, the virus sits there, ready to be picked up by the next unwary person.

Simply touch the nose, mouth or even the eye, and you, too, can have the flu.

The virus also can be passed when a patient coughs or sneezes a fine spray of saliva and mucus into the air and an unfortunate passer-by breathes it in.

Influenza causes respiratory symptoms -- a cough, sneezing, headache, muscle aches and fever. Unlike a cold, which creeps up on a patient, influenza begins suddenly.

Although people often refer to "stomach flu," influenza does not cause gastrointestinal symptoms.

It can, however, cause pneumonia, and patients weakened by flu can then become infected by a range of bacterial diseases. This is why flu kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people around the world each year -- 36,000 in the United States alone.

Every year a slightly different mix of influenza viruses circulate, and health experts try their best to predict the upcoming mix. They then work to formulate a vaccine that will protect against the most common strains.

The vaccine uses dead virus and cannot cause the flu.