The flu, or influenza, is caused by a virus that infects the respiratory system. Though colds are also caused by viruses, the symptoms of the two illnesses have some differences. The flu is much more likely to be accompanied by fever, headache and extreme exhaustion.
The flu can be passed from person to person through coughing and sneezing. The virus may also be picked up from contaminated surfaces, such as doorknobs or telephone receivers. If you touch a contaminated surface and then touch your nose or mouth, the virus can enter your body and infect you.
The flu can send people to the hospital. In some cases it can be deadly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The flu can be especially serious among newborns, the elderly and people with ongoing health problems.
Most of the time, you just have to wait while your body fights off the virus. However, there are ways to lessen the severity of symptoms in the meantime. The CDC recommends that you:
- Get plenty of rest.
- Drink lots of liquids.
- Take medicines, such as acetaminophen, to relieve aches, pains and fever.
There are also prescription medications that can help fight the flu, especially if you take them within two days of the beginning of the illness. Talk to your doctor for more information.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, you can do several things to avoid catching or spreading the flu, including these:
- Eat well, exercise and get plenty of sleep to keep your immune system strong.
- Wash your hands often to avoid spreading germs.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or handkerchief when you cough or sneeze.
- Use antibacterial disinfectant to regularly clean surfaces that may spread the infection.
- Get a flu shot each year.
The CDC recommends that people ages 6 months and older receive the flu vaccine each year. Vaccination is especially important for people who are at high risk for serious flu complications. This includes:
- Young children.
- Pregnant women.
- People with chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes or heart and lung disease.
- People 65 years and older.
Vaccination is also important for people who live with or care for anyone at high risk for serious flu complications.
If you have questions about whether or not to get a flu shot, talk to your doctor.
Flu shots do not cause the flu. This flu vaccine is made with killed viruses or just the protein needed for protection. However, you may experience mild side effects from the shot, including soreness where the shot is given, fever and fatigue. These effects should last just one or two days.
If you experience the emergency warning signs of flu, seek medical care right away. You should see a doctor if:
- Your symptoms worsen or last a long time.
- You have trouble breathing or shortness of breath.
- There is persistent pain or pressure in your chest or abdomen.
- You feel dizzy or confused.
- You have seizures.
- You aren't urinating.
- You experience severe muscle pain, weakness or unsteadiness.
- Your fever or cough improve but then return or worsen.
- Chronic medical conditions worsen.
To learn more about flu, visit the Flu health topic center. You can also find out more at these websites: