The flu (also called influenza) is a viral infection. It affects the respiratory system. It can cause mild-to-severe illness, and sometimes it can lead to death.
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The best way to avoid getting the flu is by being vaccinated every year.
The influenza virus causes the flu. Each winter, the virus spreads around the world. The strains are usually different from one year to the next. While less likely, it is possible to get the flu when it is not flu season.
The two main kinds of influenza virus are Type A and Type B.
Someone infected with the virus may sneeze or cough. This releases droplets into the air. If you breathe in infected droplets, you can become infected. You can also become infected through touch. If you touch a contaminated surface, you may transfer the virus from your hand to your mouth or nose.
Factors that increase your chance of the flu include:
Certain groups of people are at a higher risk of developing complications from the flu. Risk factors for complications include:
If you have the flu, you might infect others one day before symptoms start and up to five days (sometimes more) after you become sick. This means you may be infecting others even before you know you are sick.
Symptoms usually start abruptly. They may include:
You may start to feel better in 7-10 days. However, you may still have a cough and feel tired.
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. Diagnosis of the flu is usually based on symptoms.
In some cases, your doctor may take samples from your nose or throat to confirm the diagnosis.
Treatment may include:
Most people with the flu do not need antiviral medicine. Check with your doctor. You may need the medicine if you are in a high-risk group or if you have a severe illness (for example, breathing problems).
Antiviral medicines generally may help relieve symptoms and shorten the time you are sick. They must be taken within 48 hours of the first symptoms. Examples of these medicines include:
Some strains of the seasonal influenza virus are resistant to these medicines.
It is important to get plenty of rest when your body is fighting the flu.
Drink a lot of liquids. This can include water, juice, and caffeine-free tea.
These medicines are used to control fever and to treat aches and pains. Adults can use:
Decongestants are available as pills or nasal sprays. If you use a nasal spray, do not use it longer than 3-5 days. You may experience an increase in congestion when you stop using the spray. This is called rebound effect.
Elderberry extract may reduce flu symptoms. Researchers found that products containing elderberry, like Sambucol and ViraBLOC, decreased symptoms in some studies. However, be aware that the government does not regulate herbal remedies. Therefore, the herbal supplements that you buy may not have the same ingredients as those studied and they may contain impurities (things that should not be in the product).
If you are diagnosed with the flu, follow your doctor's instructions.
The best way to prevent getting the flu is to be vaccinated. You will need to be vaccinated each year since the virus may change every season. Two forms of the vaccine are available:
For the best protection, get vaccinated as soon as the vaccine is available in your area (vaccinations are offered throughout the flu season, which may begin in October).
It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to protect you against the flu.
There are people who should not be vaccinated, such as:
There are general measures you can take to reduce your risk of getting the flu:
Sometimes it is beneficial to take antiviral medicines to prevent the flu. You may want to talk to your doctor about taking these medicines to lower your risk of getting the flu if you:
If you have the flu and live with someone who is at risk for complications (such as, elderly, babies, someone with cancer), that person may need to take antiviral medicines to prevent getting the flu from you.
Remember that these medicines are not a substitute for being vaccinated. Vaccination is still the best way to prevent the flu.
If you have the flu, take these steps to avoid spreading it to others: