Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses. Every year 5 to 20 percent of the American population gets the flu. Adults may be able to infect others a day before getting flu symptoms and up to a week after getting sick. Influenza infects the respiratory tract (nose, throat and lungs) and can cause severe illness. The flu season may begin as early as October and last as late as May.
What are common flu symptoms?
Influenza is characterized by the abrupt onset of:
- High fever
- Extreme tiredness
- Dry cough
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle ache
- Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are also common in children
Although the fever, body aches and headaches may last for three to five days, the cough and fatigue may last for more than two weeks.
How is the flu spread?
The flu is highly contagious. It is usually spread from person to person (coughing or sneezing). However a person can also be infected by touching something that is contaminated with the virus and then touching his/her mouth or nose.
It is very difficult to distinguish the flu from other bacterial causes of respiratory illness on the basis of symptoms alone.
A test given in the first few days after the symptoms begin can confirm the illness.
Who should receive the flu vaccine?
The centers for disease control and prevention suggest the following groups receive a flu vaccine. *
- Persons aged 2-64 with underlying chronic medical conditions
- Adults aged 65 years and older
- Residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities
- Health care workers involved in direct patient care
- All women who will be pregnant during the flu season
- All children age 6-23 months
- Children age 6 months – 18 years on chronic aspirin therapy
- Out-of-home caregivers and household contacts of children 6 months and older
*Because some people may experience an allergic reaction to the flu vaccine or have other illnesses that may react with the vaccine, always consult your physician before being vaccinated.
How is influenza treated?
The most common complications of the flu are secondary bacterial pneumonia, dehydration, sinus infections and worsening of chronic medical conditions, so prevention is the best treatment. Since the flu is caused by a virus, antibiotics are not very effective. However, they may be prescribed if secondary bacterial pneumonia is suspected. Treatment of the symptoms should include rest and fluids.
How else can I avoid the flu?
The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccine. However, there are good health habits that can also help you avoid the flu.
- Avoid close contact with anyone who may be sick or if you are sick
- Avoid spreading the virus when sick by staying home or limiting your travel
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing
- Clean your hands often
If you have any specific questions about your health and the flu vaccine, it is important that you discuss them with your physician. If you have general questions about the flu or the availability of the flu vaccine, please visit the Department of Health and Human Services website at www.hhs.gov.