Influenza is a common infection that spreads easily. It is more often called the flu. The illness can range from mild to severe. It can be fatal in some. There are three types of flu: Type A, Type B, and less common Type C.
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The flu is caused by different strains of the influenza virus. The strain that is most common changes from year to year. The virus is spread from person to person when someone who is ill sneezes or coughs. This releases small amounts of virus in the air for a short time. Others nearby can then inhale the virus in the air. The virus can also live on surfaces for a time. A person can also get sick from touching a surface where the virus is, then touching their mouth or nose.
Things that raise the risk of getting the flu are:
- Living or working in crowded areas—such as nursing homes, schools, daycare centers, and the military
- Having a physical or mental disability
- Children less than 5 years of age
- Adults who are at least 50 years of age
Symptoms often start quickly. They may be:
The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam may be done. Diagnosis is often based on symptoms.
The doctor may take samples from the nose or throat for testing, but it is rare.
Most can clear the virus on their own. The flu usually lasts seven to 10 days. A cough or feeling tired may last longer. People with severe symptoms or problems may be treated in the hospital.
Treatment can help ease discomfort until the flu passes. Options include:
- Home care—such as rest and drinking plenty of fluids
- Symptom treatment with over the counter medicine, such as:
- Acetaminophen or ibuprofen—to reduce pain and fever
- Cough remedies
- Decongestants—to ease stuffiness
- Antihistamines— to ease a runny nose, or itchy and watery eyes
- Antiviral medicines—for severe symptoms or people at risk for them
Hospital care may include fluids and breathing support.
To reduce the risk of getting the flu:
- Get a yearly flu vaccine. Everyone 6 months of age and older should think about getting a flu vaccine. It is safe and often helpful for those with chronic health conditions and people who are pregnant. Talk to the doctor if there are any questions.
- Wash hands often.
- Stay away from people who are sick.
- Do not share drinks or personal items.
- Keep surfaces clean with disinfectants.
Antiviral medicines may be advised for certain people.
- Flu season. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season.htm.
- Gaitonde, D.Y., Moore, F.C., et al. Influenza: diagnosis and treatment. American Family Physician, 2019; 100 (12): 751-758.
- Inactivated influenza VIS. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/flu.html.
- Influenza in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/influenza-in-adults.
- Influenza in children. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/influenza-in-children.
- Seasonal influenza vaccination. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/prevention/seasonal-influenza-vaccination.
- Seasonal flu vaccines. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/flushot.htm.
- What you should know about flu antiviral drugs. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/antivirals/whatyoushould.htm.
- Mary-Beth Seymour, RN
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