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Facts About the Flu

What is the flu?

The flu, or influenza, is a respiratory infection caused by type A and type B influenza viruses. It is most common in the fall and winter.

The flu is highly contagious; the virus usually enters the body through mucous membranes in the mouth, nose or eyes. When a person with the flu coughs or sneezes, the virus becomes airborne and can be inhaled by anyone nearby.

In most communities, it is school-age children who are the first to get the flu, and then they carry it home and to other group activities. In a mild flu season, about 10% to 15% of the population becomes infected. In a more severe flu season, 20% or more of the population can suffer from the flu.

How do I know if I have the flu?

Flu generally strikes 1 to 3 days after exposure to the virus. The onset of flu often seems sudden: people describe feeling like they've "been hit by a truck." Common flu symptoms include sudden onset, fever and chills, cough, muscle and joint pain, headache, fatigue and weakness. Some people also get a stuffy nose and sore throat.

Is the flu dangerous?

A bad case of the flu will probably send a healthy adult or child to bed for 3 to 5 days. Afterwards, the person will recover fully, but cough and tiredness may persist for days or weeks.

Nonetheless, the flu can be a serious illness. Each year, up to 40 million Americans develop the flu, and about 150,000 are hospitalized. During past epidemics in the United States, influenza and its complications have caused between 10,000 and 40,000 deaths.

People over the age of 50 and those of all ages with chronic illnesses (such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma and HIV) are more likely to become seriously ill with the flu. These people are also more likely to go on to develop other serious infections such as pneumonia. If you are elderly or have a chronic disease, you should call your doctor at the first sign of flu symptoms.

Can the flu be cured with antibiotics?

No. Because the flu is a viral infection, it cannot be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics are medicines that kill bacteria and are, therefore, only useful for treating bacterial infections.

If your doctor does not think that you need antibiotics to treat your infection, do not insist. Inappropriate use of antibiotics contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, which is a major public health problem.

What should I do if I get the flu?

Rest is important to help you get better. Plus, if you stay home, there's less risk that you'll give the flu to other people. Flu continues to be contagious for 3 or 4 days after symptoms appear.

You should also drink plenty of fluids. Hot liquids may relieve the feeling of congestion. A pain reliever, such as acetaminophen, can be taken for aches and fever. Never give aspirin to a child under 12 who has the flu (or any illness you suspect is caused by a virus) due to the risk of a serious adverse effect known as Reye's Syndrome.

When should I seek medical attention?

If you feel seriously ill, or are concerned regarding your symptoms, visit the Health Services office for an evaluation.

As discussed earlier, people over the age of 50 and those of all ages with chronic health problems should always contact a doctor if they get the flu.

Also, people with the flu sometimes develop other serious infections such as pneumonia, bronchitis, sinusitis or ear infection. You should be evaluated promptly if:

  • You are coughing up thick, discolored or bloody mucus
  • You have symptoms such as recurring fever, chest pain, facial swelling, severe pain in the face or forehead or earache

What's the difference between the flu and a cold?

Both the flu and a cold are viral infections and can cause symptoms such as coughing and sore throat. A cold is a minor viral infection of the nose and throat. The flu, however, is usually more severe, with higher fevers and the addition of aches and pains.

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