Everything You Need to Know About the Flu

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The word “flu” is used to describe all sorts of symptoms. But do you know what it really means?

The flu is a respiratory infection that affects your nose, throat, and lungs, and is caused by one of several influenza viruses. The illness varies from mild to severe forms and is very contagious.

The different types of flu virus include:

  • Influenza A: This virus infects people, birds, pigs, horses, and other animals. The strains that affect people are H1N1 and H3N2. This type of flu is the most severe. Influenza A is included in the flu vaccine each year.
  • Influenza B: This virus affects people and causes more mild symptoms than influenza A. It is also included in the seasonal flu vaccine.
  • Influenza C: This virus causes mild illness in people and occurs less frequently than influenza A and B. The flu vaccine does not guard against influenza C.
  • Avian flu: Bird flu or H5N1, is a subtype of influenza A that is highly contagious in birds. Humans become infected by direct contact with infected poultry.

Symptoms Range From Mild To Severe

Anyone can get the flu, which spreads easily when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Flu can cause mild to severe symptoms and can sometimes lead to death. 

The flu usually starts quickly and you feel worse than if you have a cold. Symptoms include:

  • Body and muscle aches
  • Cough
  • Fever, but not always
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea and vomiting, in some cases

The flu affects your whole body. You generally start to feel sick one to four days after you are infected with the virus.

If you have asthma or lung disease, you are at a high risk for complications from the flu, such as pneumonia.

Learn How the Flu Virus Spreads

“Influenza is spread quite easily,” says Christopher Lauricella, DO, of Premier Health Family Care of Vandalia. “It’s spread by droplets when a person sneezes or coughs or otherwise just opens up their mouth. And these droplets can span a distance, sometimes up to six feet.”

The virus enters your body through your nose or mouth by way of the air, or when you touch a contaminated surface and bring your hand to your nose, eyes, or mouth.

“There’s a lot of controversy about how long the flu virus can stay alive on a surface such as a countertop,” Dr. Lauricella says. “But two to three days later you start feeling sick, maybe a high fever and body aches.”

Dr. Lauricella talks about how flu viruses spread. Click play to watch the video or Read the transcript.

How is the flu virus spread?

Influenza is spread quite easily. It's spread by droplets that occur with a person sneezes or coughs or otherwise opens up their mouth. And these droplets can span a distance of up to 6 feet and there's a lot of controversy about how long the flu virus can stay alive on a surface such as a countertop. But if you happen to touch the surface like that after somebody has coughed or sneezed or maybe rubbed their nose and then touch that service and then you yourself touch your eye, touch your mouth or somehow ingest that droplet of the virus now finds a new home and spreads to a new host. 2 to 3 days later you start feeling sick maybe with a high fever, body aches. And end up most often in the doctors office wondering what happened and how you got this virus. So yeah, it’s spread quite easily by fine droplets, sometimes ones you don’t even feel and can sometimes live for 10 to 15 [minutes], maybe even half an hour on a surface where you subconsciously touched the surface and then maybe touched your eye. So it is, it’s spread quite easily unfortunately.

 

Between 5 and 20 percent of people in the United States get the flu each year. If you have the flu, you are most contagious in the first three or four days after you start to feel sick. And you can pass along the virus as early as one day after exposure and as late as five to seven days after symptoms develop.

Diagnosis and Treatment

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Tests are available to diagnose the flu, including:

  • Swab test. A sample is taken from your nose or throat to check for the presence of flu virus.
  • Nasal aspirate. A saline solution is injected into the nose and then removed to test for flu virus.

If you test positive for the flu virus, your doctor can prescribe antiviral drugs to reduce symptoms and help your body fight the infection.

You should stay home from work or school if you have the flu. Drink plenty of fluids and get lots of rest.

“The best treatment for the flu depends on the individual,” says Anoopa Hodges, DO, of Oakwood Primary Care. An otherwise healthy person, she says, can usually do well with fluids and rest. “Keeping from getting dehydrated is very important and resting as much as possible.”

She adds, “If the symptoms are caught and treated within 48 to 72 hours, that could shorten the course of the influenza.” That’s the window for taking antiviral drugs, such as Tamiflu® and Xofluza™, that prevent the flu virus from replicating and stop the disease life cycle.

People with underlying chronic heart or lung diseases “should be seen (by their health care provider) simply because if they have any alarming symptoms, they may need further treatment and further evaluation.”

Dr. Hodges talks about treatment of influenza. Click play to watch the video or Read the transcript.

What is the best treatment for the flu?

The best treatment for the flu depends on the individual. If an individual is a fairly healthy, middle aged person, there is nothing more than fluids and rest that's going to help the individual. Keeping from getting dehydrated is very important. Resting as much as possible. If the symptoms are caught and treated within 48 to 72 hours, that could shorten the course of the influenza. Now, any high risk individuals, people who have underlying heart and lung disease, those folks should be seen simply because if they have any alarming symptoms, they may need further treatment, further evaluation.

 

Know the Risks for Flu Complications

Most people recover from the flu in about a week. Certain people are more at risk for flu complications, including the elderly, the very young, and anyone with asthma, lung disease, or other chronic conditions.

Flu complications include:

Take Steps to Prevent the Flu

The best way to prevent the flu is to get the yearly flu vaccine. Other ways to help keep you and your family healthy include:

Small Steps: Exercise Early or Late.
Scheduling your workouts before dawn or late afternoon will help protect you from a heavy dose of pollen.