Depending on your age and health status, influenza or “the flu” can act as a very achy nuisance or a threat to your life. Influenza 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.
Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases, shares information about the flu (influenza).
Cold vs. flu
Flu is different from more mild viral infections such as colds, and from so-called “stomach flu,” which causes vomiting and diarrhea.
People with colds are more likely to develop a runny or stuffy nose and symptoms can come on gradually. Flu typically strikes suddenly and usually includes fever, aches, chills and fatigue.
While influenza 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 disease or diabetes. In fact, 80,000 Americans died of influenza and its complications during the 2017-2018 season, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Getting a flu shot, hand washing, and other prevention practices can ward off the flu and avoid putting loved ones at risk.
Six tips for prevention
Recommendations for preventing the flu are easy to follow — and can make all the difference in staying healthy now and throughout the year:
- Get a flu vaccination. According to the CDC, this is the single best way to prevent the flu. Flu vaccines are designed to protect against the three or four influenza viruses that experts predict will be the most common during the upcoming season. The formulation of the vaccination changes every year, so the flu shot is recommended annually. Flu season usually begins in October and can last through May, so it’s usually best to get the vaccination as soon as vaccines become available at the start of fall. Even vaccination in December or January is still beneficial because flu season often peaks after the New Year. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older should get vaccinated. Annual vaccination is especially important for people at high risk of having serious flu-related complications (mostly the young, the elderly, and people with other chronic diseases), or people 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 close contact with people who are sick. 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 further spreading of 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. 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
- Developed Guillian-Barré syndrome after receiving flu vaccine previously
- Are younger than 6 months of age
- Currently have a moderate or severe illness with a fever
For more information about flu vaccine safety, visit the CDC site.
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 older than 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, therefore, contact their healthcare provider early in the illness.
- Fatigue can be relieved with rest and fluids.
- Sinus and nasal congestion may benefit from antihistamines and decongestants.
- And remember — the flu is a viral infection, not a bacterial one; so antibiotics will not help this go away any faster than your own immune system!