Depending on your age and health, seasonal influenza — or "the flu" — can be a minor nuisance or a threat to your life. It is a viral illness that causes fevers, chills, sweats, headache and muscle aches. It can also lead to fatigue, a painful cough, sore throat, and sinus and chest congestion. With flu currently on the rise throughout the U.S., it's a good time to take steps to prevent it.
Cold vs. flu
Flu is different from mild viral infections such as colds that typically cause sore throats and runny noses. Flu symptoms tend to be worse, strike suddenly and last longer.
While flu symptoms can last from several days to a couple of weeks, most people start to get better after two or three days. In some high-risk groups of people, however, severe symptoms can develop.
Serious complications can include pneumonia, bronchitis, or a worsening of existing heart conditions or diabetes. In fact, more than 60,000 Americans died of flu and its complications during the 2018-2019 season, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Getting a flu shot, hand washing and other preventions can ward off the flu and avoid putting loved ones at risk.
Six tips for preventing flu
Recommendations for preventing the flu are easy to follow — and can make all the difference in staying healthy now and throughout the year:
Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases, shares information about the flu.
- Get a flu vaccination. According to the CDC, the vaccine is the single best way to prevent the flu. The agency recommends the vaccine for everyone 6 months of age and older. Flu vaccines are designed to protect against the three or four viruses predicted to be common during the upcoming season. It’s best to get a vaccine as soon as it becomes available at the start of fall, however getting vaccinated in December or January is still beneficial. Annual vaccination is especially important for people at high risk of flu-related complications: the young, the elderly, people with chronic diseases, and those who live with or care for high-risk individuals.
- Wash your hands. Use soap and water often, especially after coughing or sneezing. Carry alcohol-based hand cleaners in your car, backpack or purse when soap and water are not available.
- Keep your distance. Avoid contact with people who are sick. People with the flu can spread it to others up to about six feet away. If you're ill, stay home. This will help prevent others from getting sick.
- Cover your cough. Use a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It can prevent the spread of germs. If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper arm or elbow. Sneezing and coughing into your hand puts the virus in an excellent spot for spreading the disease.
- Don't contaminate. Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread this way, which is why hand washing is so important.
- Maintain good health. Get plenty of sleep. Drink lots of water and eat nutritious foods. Get regular exercise. Manage stress. Being healthy improves your immunity and helps fight the flu.
The flu vaccine comes in two forms:
- The shot. This is an inactivated vaccine, which is safe for people over 6 months of age. Side effects can include soreness, redness and swelling of the injection site, low-grade fever and muscle aches.
- The nasal spray. This is for some healthy people who are between 2 and 49 years of age. Side effects can include runny nose, headache, sore throat and cough.
Ask a doctorThere are some people who should not get a flu vaccine without first consulting a physician, according to the CDC. Talk to your doctor:
- If you had severe reaction to flu vaccination in the past
- If you developed Guillian-Barré syndrome after receiving flu vaccine previously
- If you currently have a moderate or severe illness with a fever
- About your children who are younger than 6 months of age
Treatment of the flu is mainly directed at alleviating symptoms.
- Fever, aches and pains can largely be treated by over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
- Coughs can be alleviated with cough medication and sometimes even a teaspoon of honey (but only for those over 1 year old).
- Antiviral therapy may shorten illness by a day or more, but it needs to be started within the first 48 hours of the illness. Patients who would like antiviral treatment should contact their health care providers early in the illness.
- Fatigue can be relieved with rest and fluids.
- Sinus and nasal congestion can be reduced with a humidifier or vaporizer.
- And remember — the flu is a viral infection, not a bacterial one. Antibiotics will not help this go away any faster than your own immune system!