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Health Update: Influenza

Health Update: Influenza

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and on occasion can lead to death. The timing of flu is unpredictable and can fluctuate in different parts of the country and from season to season. Most seasonal flu activity typically occurs between October and May. Flu activity most commonly peaks in the United States between December and February.

People who have the flu often feel some or all of these signs and symptoms:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (very tired)
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.

Researchers believe that flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can deposit in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, eyes or possibly their nose. You may be able to disseminate the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick. Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming ill. Some people, especially young children and people with weakened immune systems, might be able to infect others for an even lengthier time. The time from when a person is exposed to flu virus to when symptoms begin is about 1 to 4 days, with an average of about 2 days.

Anyone can get the flu (even healthy people), and dangerous problems related to the flu can happen at any age, but some people are at high risk of developing serious flu-related complications if they get sick. This includes people 65 years and older, people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease), pregnant women, and young children. Complications of flu can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.

The first and most crucial step in preventing flu is to get a flu vaccination each year. Flu vaccination is safe and has important benefits. It can reduce flu illnesses, doctors' visits, and missed work and school due to flu, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations. Various flu vaccines are approved for use in different groups of people. Factors that can determine a person's suitability for vaccination, or vaccination with a particular vaccine, include a person's age, health (current and past) and any relevant allergies. Flu shots are approved for use in pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions. There are flu shots that also are appropriate for use in people as young as 6 months of age and up. People should begin getting vaccinated soon after flu vaccine becomes available, if possible by October, to ensure that as many people as possible are protected before flu season begins. Nevertheless, as long as flu viruses are circulating in the community, it’s not too late to get vaccinated.

If you are ill with flu, stay home from work or school to prevent spreading flu to others. It is very challenging to distinguish the flu from other viral or bacterial causes of respiratory illnesses on the basis of symptoms alone. There are tests available to diagnose flu. . CDC also recommends routine preventive actions such as, staying away from people who are sick, covering coughs and sneezes and frequent handwashing, to help reduce the spread of germs that cause respiratory (nose, throat, and lungs) illnesses, like influenza.

If you do become sick with the flu, antiviral drugs are prescription drugs that can be used to treat the illness. People at high risk of serious flu complications (such as children younger than 2 years, adults 65 and older, pregnant women, and people with certain medical conditions) and people who are very sick with flu (such as those hospitalized because of flu) should get antiviral drugs. Some other people can be treated with antivirals at their health care provider’s discretion. Treating high risk people or people who are very sick with flu with antiviral drugs is imperative. Studies reveal that prompt treatment with antiviral drugs can prevent critical flu complications. Timely treatment can mean the difference between having a milder illness versus very serious illness that could result in a hospital stay. Management with antivirals works best when begun within 48 hours of getting sick, but can still be beneficial when given later in the course of illness. Antiviral drugs are effective across all age-and risk groups, but keep in mind they are not a substitute for getting a flu vaccine. Antiviral drugs are a second line of defense to treat the flu (including seasonal flu and variant flu viruses) if you get sick.

Be wise, the short time that it takes you to get a flu shot can protect your health and the health of your loved ones.