Get All the Facts You Need to Know About the Flu
Many of us have had at least one bout of the flu. Learn what causes it, what its symptoms are, and how to manage it.
By Krisha McCoy
Medically Reviewed by Sanjai Sinha, MD
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In any given year, it's estimated that 5 to 20 percent of Americans get the flu, a respiratory illness also known as influenza, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The flu can lead to serious complications, sending more than 200,000 U.S. residents to the hospital each year.
The flu virus spreads each year in the late fall and winter. These epidemics tend to peak in communities after three weeks and begin to decrease after an additional three to four weeks.
According to a CDC report published in February 2019, flu activity during the 2019–17 season was moderate, with influenza A (H3N2) viruses predominating. H3N2-predominant seasons have been associated with more severe illness and mortality, especially in older people and young children, as compared with seasons in which B viruses (H1N1) predominated.
Scientists can’t predict with 100 percent certainty what each flu season will be like. Each year, the timing, severity, and length of flu season changes.
Between May and September 2019, seasonal influenza virus activity in the United States remained low. Beginning in early September, however, there were reports of localized influenza outbreaks.
RELATED: Follow flu-risk trends in your area with the Everyday Health Flu Map.
How Does the Flu Spread?
Flu viruses spread through tiny droplets of fluid that contain the virus. When people with the flu cough, sneeze, or touch something after wiping their noses or mouths, they can pass these droplets to the next person.
When others inhale infected droplets from the air or make contact with infected surfaces and then touch their mouths or noses, they can become infected. The flu can spread up to 6 feet away, the CDC cautions, and people with the flu can pass their illness to others even before they develop symptoms.
Even healthy people can get the flu. But people 65 years of age and older, young children, pregnant women, and anyone with a chronic condition such as asthma or heart disease are at a higher risk of developing flu-related complications.
What Are the Symptoms of the Flu?
If you are infected with the flu virus, your symptoms probably will develop one to four days later. Flu symptoms usually come on suddenly and may include:
- High fever
- Digestive issues like vomiting and diarrhea
- Body aches
- Dry cough and runny nose
In some cases, the flu can lead to other, more serious complications. These may include:
How Do You Avoid Getting the Flu?
Most people can reduce their risk of developing the flu by getting the annual flu vaccine in early fall. Getting vaccinated by October can help ensure that you are protected before flu season begins, but it’s never too late in the flu season to get vaccinated, the CDC advises.
Two basic types of viruses cause the flu: A and B. Influenza A can cause moderate to severe illness in people of all ages as well as animals. Influenza B causes milder illness and affects only people, particularly kids, according to the Immune Deficiency Foundation (IDF).
Different types of flu viruses are identified by antigens on their surface. These antigens can change or mutate. When a major change or “shift” occurs, a new flu virus is made, which can cause an epidemic among those who haven’t been vaccinated, the IDF adds.
In the 2014–15 flu season, for example, the majority of circulating influenza A (H3N2) viruses were different from the component of the seasonal vaccines produced, which rendered the vaccine less effective. Scientists took steps to address the issue in the 2015–16 flu season by adjusting the vaccine to include the strain that drifted.
“Influenza vaccine is still the best way to protect against the flu and its complications. Until we have a longer-lasting universal vaccine, we all should be getting it every year during the early fall,” says Christopher Ohl, MD, professor of infectious diseases at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Who Should Get the Flu Vaccine?
According to the CDC, everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu vaccine every season.
This flu season, the CDC recommends only injectable influenza vaccines (including inactivated influenza vaccines and recombinant influenza vaccines, which are egg-free). The nasal spray flu vaccine (live attenuated influenza vaccine, or LAIV) should not be used, according to the CDC.
Available flu vaccines are designed to protect against three (trivalent) or four (quadrivalent) different flu viruses. Shots are available in a standard dose and a high dose for older people. The CDC website includes a showing all flu vaccines that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use this season.
In addition to doctors’ offices, you can get a flu vaccine at many clinics, health departments, pharmacies, schools, college health centers, and possibly through your employer.
Consult your doctor before getting the flu vaccine — especially if you've previously had a severe reaction to the flu vaccine, have an allergy to eggs, have a moderate to severe illness with a fever, or have developed Guillain-Barré syndrome within six weeks of getting a flu vaccine.
How Do You Manage Flu Symptoms?
If you still get the flu, treatment with antivirals can help ease symptoms and help you recover more quickly.
These drugs work best when taken within 48 hours of getting sick, but they can still help if you take them later on in the course of your illness.
People with the flu should stay home from work or school to avoid spreading the virus to other people. They should also make sure to get plenty of rest, avoid cigarette smoke, and drink lots of fluids.
Call your doctor if your fever lasts more than three days, if you exhibit symptoms like disorientation and chest pain, or you have signs of a complication like pneumonia. Your doctor may perform a nasal swab to identify the specific virus that is causing your symptoms.
Expect your flu symptoms to begin improving within a week to 10 days. But even after you feel better, don't be surprised if some of your symptoms, especially a cough or fatigue, linger a little while longer.
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