What Is the Flu?

Health, Home & Family
on November 16, 2011

The weather is chilling. The kids are headed off to school. It's that time of year again—flu season. The dreaded flu season puts fear into the bravest of hearts. To increase your chances of weathering this germy season unscathed, arm yourself with knowledge on how to spot the flu and how to prevent and treat it

What is the flu? Influenza, or the flu, is an infection that targets the respiratory system. The flu is a viral infection. It's not related to what's commonly called "stomach flu," which is actually not flu at all but rather a separate virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea, according to the Mayo Clinic. A cold is caused by different viruses and tends to have milder symptoms and fewer serious complications than the flu.

Who's at risk? Anyone can get the flu, but some people are at a higher risk of flu complications that could be life-threatening. The high-risk category includes very young children, older adults, women who are pregnant, and people with chronic conditions or weakened immune systems.

Common symptoms of the flu. The flu starts out much like a typical cold. However, with the flu, the runny nose, sneezing and painful sore throat develop more quickly, and you usually feel sicker than when you have a cold. Flu symptoms include fever higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, body aches, sweats and chills, headache, fatigue, dry cough and sinus congestion. If you see your doctor at the first signs of flu, you can get an antiviral drug that may reduce the symptoms and length of the flu.

How do you get the flu? Flu transmits through the air when someone coughs, sneezes or talks near you. The drops of virus can be inhaled through the nose or breathed in through the mouth, or you can get the virus from touching a contaminated object such as a phone, door handle or keyboard and then touching your mouth or nose.

Flu treatment. Once you've been diagnosed with the flu, the best treatment is good old-fashioned bed rest and fluids. Your doctor may recommend acetaminophen or other over-the-counter pain relievers to help ease symptoms. There are antiviral medications that your doctor may prescribe if it's the first day or two of the flu and you're at a high risk of developing complications.

Get vaccinated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu shot. Since the strains of influenza are changing all the time, the CDC recommend everyone ages 6 months and older get a yearly flu shot. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for your body's immune system to develop resistance to the strains of flu virus in the flu shot.

Keep it clean. Good hygiene is a must during the flu season. Measures such as washing hands, cleaning commonly shared surfaces, containing coughs and sneezes with a tissue or inside of your elbow are helpful. According to the Mayo Clinic, it may also be wise to avoid crowds during the flu season to reduce the chance of getting infected.