Frequently Asked Questions About the Flu

By:    Published: January 25, 2013

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It comes on suddenly, leaves you feeling like a truck has hit you, and sickens an estimated 5 to 20 percent of the population each year, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Seasonal influenza, more commonly called the flu, is a respiratory illness caused by two different types of influenza virus: A and B. A third type, influenza C virus, causes mild respiratory illness, and is not associated with epidemics.

How Do I Know if I Have a Cold or the Flu?

Though people often think they have the flu whenever they develop respiratory symptoms during the winter, the flu is much more severe than a cold. With the flu, it’s not uncommon to wake up feeling fine, and be bedridden by evening. Colds generally start with a low-level feeling of “not being well”, then symptoms worsen over the next day or two.

Symptom

Flu

Cold

Fever

Yes. typically over 100 F

Usually not

Fatigue/Weakness

Severe

Mild

Muscle Aches

Severe

No

Headache

Severe

Mild to severe

Sore Throat

Occasionally

Common

Stuffy Nose

Occasionally

Yes

Runny Nose

Occasionally

Yes

Cough

Severe

Yes


How Does The Flu Spread?

When those who are infected cough or sneeze, they spray out tiny droplets of moisture containing the influenza virus. If you are unlucky enough to be within a few feet of the person, you may inhale some virus-laden droplets. This is the most common way to catch the flu.

You can also get sick by touching something contaminated with the virus, then putting your hand near your eyes, nose or mouth. Most people touch their face dozens of times each day without realizing it, making it easy to transmit the infection. Kissing a contagious person, sharing a glass or eating utensils, shaking hands or other close contact all spread the disease. Frequent hand washing helps reduce your chance of infection.

Related: 10 Common Places Where You Can Catch the Flu

When Is A Person Most Contagious?

Once the influenza virus enters your body through the nose, mouth or eyes, symptoms normally begin within two to four days. Unfortunately, you become contagious and able to spread the flu to others a day or so BEFORE you show symptoms. You remain contagious up to a week after symptoms begin, with the virus most easily spread during the first days of illness while your fever is highest. Children remain contagious longer than adults do, often for more than a week.

Do I Want Antibiotics?

Once the misery of the flu begins, many people head to the doctor expecting a prescription for antibiotics. But unless you have developed a secondary infection, antibiotics, which target bacteria, not viruses, are of no use with the flu.

Though most people will battle off the flu on their own, there are antiviral medications that shorten the duration of the disease. Tamiflu is available in pill or liquid form, and Relenza is an inhalable powder. Both are available only with a prescription, and work best if started within 48 hours of the first flu symptoms. If you are very ill, are pregnant, elderly or have a preexisting condition that makes flu complications likely, your doctor may want you to take antiviral medication even if 48 hours have already passed.

OTC medications such as acetaminophen, naproxen or ibuprofen can all help with the aches and pains caused by flu. You’ll be more comfortable with:

  • Cough suppressants
  • Throat lozenges
  • Decongestants
  • Plenty of fluids
  • Bed rest
  • Steam inhalers

Never give aspirin to a child or teenager with flu symptoms, as this can result in a serious liver condition called Reyes syndrome.

How Effective Is The Flu Shot?

The flu shot is generally around 60 to 70 percent effective. If you do catch the flu after being vaccinated, your illness is likely to be shorter and less severe. It’s best to get the flu shot in September or October, before flu season is in full swing, as it takes a week or two to become effective, but later is better than not at all. The vaccine is recommended for almost everyone over the age of six months, particularly the following groups:

  • Over age 65
  • Pregnant women
  • Those with chronic illnesses, including immunosuppression and cancer
  • Caretakers of elderly, disabled or chronically ill persons

If you are allergic to eggs, you cannot get the flu vaccine.

But I Heard I Can Get The Flu From A Flu Shot?

This is a common misperception. The virus used to make the vaccine is dead, so cannot cause active infection. Some people do develop mild reactions to the vaccine, such as minor aches or fever. Serious reactions are rare, but usually occur soon after receiving the shot. Seek emergency attention immediately if you develop difficulty breathing or hives after a flu shot.

Related: 10 Common Flu Myths

I Don’t Like Needles. Any Other Flu Vaccine Alternatives?

If the thought of a needle makes you faint, you can still get a flu vaccine if you’re between the ages of 2 and 49, healthy, and not pregnant. FluMist is an aerosol vaccine that sprays directly into the nose. It appears to be more effective than injectable vaccines in children, less effective in adults. Talk to your doctor about your best option.

When Should I Visit A Doctor?

Most people with the flu are better off staying home and resting. Certain signs, however, indicate the need for a trip to the doctor.

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Fever beyond three days
  • Wheezing
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Worsening symptoms
  • You have a chronic medical condition
  • Symptoms in an infant or young child

The flu is one of the most miserable conditions an otherwise healthy person is likely to experience. Frequent hand washing and the flu vaccine will help prevent illness. If you do come down with the flu, rest, drink plenty of fluids, use OTC medications for relief, and visit your doctor if your symptoms worsen or continue longer than a week.

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