What is the flu?
Influenza, commonly called "the flu", is an infection of the respiratory tract (nose, throat, airways, and lungs) caused by the influenza virus. Two types of influenza virus, A and B, cause the flu. Although flu is similar in some ways to the common cold, it begins suddenly and symptoms are much more severe than those of a cold.
What are the symptoms of the flu?
The incubation period from time of exposure to the onset of symptoms ranges from 1-4 days. Symptoms usually begin suddenly with high temperature (100 degrees or more), muscle aches, headache, dry cough, and weakness. Sore throat and stuffy nose also may occur. Severe symptoms including fever often lasting for 3 to 5 days and symptoms such as cough, weakness, and fatigue may persist for several weeks.
Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are uncommon in adults with the flu. The term "stomach flu" is incorrectly used referring to these symptoms, since this is not influenza.
How is flu spread?
The influenza virus is very contagious and easily spreads from person to person in respiratory droplets when people who are infected cough or sneeze. People occasionally may become infected by touching something with influenza virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes.
Healthy adults may be able to infect others 1 day before getting symptoms and up to 5 days after getting sick. Therefore, it is possible to give someone the flu before you know you are sick as well as while you are sick.
People with the flu should cough or sneeze in to their elbow to reduce the number of infectious droplets they release into the air and to prevent contamination of the hands.
How is influenza diagnosed?
It is very difficult to distinguish the flu from other infections on the basis of symptoms alone. A doctor's exam may be needed to tell whether you have developed the flu or a complication of the flu. There are tests that can determine if you have the flu as long you are tested within the first 2 or 3 days of illness. Most people with the sudden onset of fever, muscle aches, headache, and dry cough during a community outbreak of influenza do, in fact, have the flu.
Can I avoid getting the flu?
The single best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated each year.
There are two types of vaccines:
The "flu shot"— an inactivated vaccine (containing killed virus) that is given with a needle, usually in the arm. The flu shot is approved for use in people older than 6 months, including healthy people and people with chronic medical conditions.
The nasal-spray flu vaccine — a vaccine made with live, weakened flu viruses that do not cause the flu (sometimes called LAIV for “live attenuated influenza vaccine” or FluMist®). LAIV (FluMist®) is approved for use in healthy people 2-49 years of age who are not pregnant.
Each vaccine contains three influenza viruses-one A (H3N2) virus, one A (H1N1) virus, and one B virus. The viruses in the vaccine change each year based on international surveillance and scientists' estimations about which types and strains of viruses will circulate in a given year.
About 2 weeks after vaccination, antibodies that provide protection against influenza virus infection develop in the body.
Other practices which strengthen your immune system also reduce your risk of catching the flu. It is important to get enough rest, drink plenty of liquids, eat nutritious meals, exercise moderately, and avoid immune system depressants such as tobacco and alcohol. Washing your hands frequently may also reduce your exposure to the virus.
Where can I get vaccinated? You can make an appointment to get the vaccine at the Health Center anytime by calling 375-2286.
How is the flu treated?
Rest is very important. Stay home, both to rest and to avoid exposing others, and drink lots of liquids (water, sports drinks, broth, tea, etc.) to strengthen your immune system and avoid dehydration.
Medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) may help to reduce fever, muscle aches, and headache. Cough medicine, salt water gargles (1/4 tsp salt per cup of water) for sore throat, and nasal decongestants are helpful for symptomatic relief.
Antibiotics have no effect on the flu. Influenza is a viral infection and antibiotics work only against bacterial infections.
Two flu antiviral drugs are recommended for use in the United States during the 2008-09 flu season: oseltamivir (brand name Tamiflu) and zanamivir (brand name Relenza). Oseltamivir and zanamivir are effective against both influenza A and B viruses. Antiviral drugs should be started within 2 days after becoming sick and taken for 5 days. When used this way, these drugs can reduce flu symptoms and shorten the time you are sick by 1 or 2 days. They also may make you less contagious to other people.
Influenza antiviral drugs can also be used to prevent influenza when they are given to a person who is not ill, but who has been or may be near a person with influenza. When used to prevent the flu, antiviral drugs are about 70% to 90% effective. It’s important to remember that flu antiviral drugs are not a substitute for getting a flu vaccine. When used for prevention, the number of days that they should be used will vary depending on a person’s particular situation.
REMEMBER, THE FLU VACCINE IS THE FIRST AND BEST DEFENSE AGAINST SEASONAL FLU, but antiviral drugs can be an important second line of defense to treat the flu or prevent flu infection.
What are the complications of the flu?
Just about everyone who catches the flu feels really sick for several days, but just about everyone also recovers fully with rest and symptomatic treatment. A small percentage of people with the flu develop complications which may be serious. These include pneumonia, secondary bacterial sinus and ear infections, and worsening of underlying medical problems such as asthma and diabetes.
Should I see a doctor if I have the flu?
If you are sure that you have the flu it is reasonable to rest at home and take symptomatic medication as needed. If you are unsure or have questions, call the Health Center at 375-2286.
If you have an underlying medical problem such as asthma or diabetes which affects your ability to fight off or recover from infection you should make an appointment to be seen at the Health Center.
Call the Health Center if you have the flu and:
- a fever over 100 degrees for more than 5 days
- a cough which brings up discolored or bloody mucus
- chest pain or shortness of breath
- severe facial pain or earache
- symptoms that don't get better over 7 days or get worse again after getting better
Where can I learn more about influenza?
Centers for Disease Control cdc.gov/flu