The flu is a nickname for influenza, a contagious respiratory illness caused by a virus. Flu viruses infect the nose, throat and lungs. Sometimes the illness is mild. Other times it can be severe and even lead to death.
Flu viruses travel through droplets that fly out of an infected person’s nose or mouth when he or she coughs, sneezes or talks. Droplets can land in the mouth or nose of someone else nearby.
Sometimes, you can get the flu by touching something that has the flu virus on it and then touching your mouth, eyes or nose.
People with the flu can infect others as early as 1 day before they develop flu symptoms and up to 7 days after. Young children and people with weaker immune systems may be contagious for much longer.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up to 20 percent of the population gets the flu every year. More than 200,000 are hospitalized from complications related to the virus, and about 36,000 people die from the seasonal flu.
When you have the flu, you may have some or all of these symptoms:
- High fever
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Body aches
- Vomiting or diarrhea (more common in children)
For most people, an episode of the flu will be a brief illness that will simply require you to stay home, rest, drink liquids and control fever.
However, certain people are at risk for developing serious flu complications. Those people include:
- Older people
- Young children
- Pregnant women
- People with health conditions, including asthma, diabetes or heart disease
- People who live in facilities, such as nursing homes
Complications can include:
- Bacterial pneumonia
- Ear infections/sinus infections
- Worsening chronic conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes
If you have flu-like symptoms, you should stay home and avoid contact with other people. If you have a fever, you should stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone.
To further prevent the flu virus from spreading to others, make sure you cough or sneeze into your arm or elbow. And be diligent about washing your hands.
Over-the-counter medicines, fluids and rest are usually all that is needed to get over the flu. You can ease your symptoms with:
- Tylenol for headache and fever (avoid if you have liver disease)
- An antihistamine for runny nose
- Sudafed for stuffy nose (avoid if you have hypertension or heart disease)
- Afrin nose spray for stuffy nose (up to 4 days)
- Mucinex for chest congestion
- Couch syrup for cough
Most people with the flu do not need medical care, however, medical care may be needed for those who are at risk for developing serious complications from the flu. You should also see a doctor if you experience severe symptoms, such as:
- Difficulty breathing
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Sudden dizziness
- Severe or persistent vomiting
Your doctor can prescribe antiviral drugs to make you feel better faster and prevent serious complications.
One of the best ways to prevent the flu is to stay healthy. Other prevention methods include:
- Try to avoid close contact with sick people. If possible, avoid places where there is a higher likelihood of coming in contact with people who have the flu.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially before meals and after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective.
- Avoid sharing drinks.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
- Get a flu vaccine each year.
Everyone, age 6 months and older, is strongly encouraged to be vaccinated annually against the flu virus. Flu vaccines are your best defense against getting sick and the most effective way to control the spread of the virus.
There are 2 kinds of flu vaccine available in the United States.
- Flu shots – Usually injected in the upper arm
- Nasal sprays – Approved for healthy people age 2-49 who are not pregnant, but not recommended for people who have contact with infants, elderly or others with weakened immune systems.
Get vaccinated in September or as early as possible during flu season, which usually begins in October and peaks in January or February.
Ask your doctor before getting a flu vaccine if you have:
- A severe allergy to eggs
- A moderate or severe illness with a fever
- A history of severe reaction to flu vaccine
- A history of Guillain-Barre syndrome (a paralytic illness)
Find answers to some frequently asked questions about the flu vaccine.
At Wake Forest Baptist Health, our infectious diseases specialists work closely with local and state health departments and federal agencies like the CDC to educate physicians, patients and the public about what everyone can do to control the spread of the flu virus.