What is the Flu and How Do I Protect Myself?

Last Updated: 1/31/2020

The flu is a contagious illness that can cause you to miss school, work or other important activities. In some cases, it can lead to serious complications or even death.

To protect yourself and your family, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), encourage everyone ages 6 months and older to get a yearly flu vaccination. They especially urge high-risk individuals and anyone who expects to have contact with high risk individuals to get immunized.1

What Is the Flu?

The flu is a contagious infection caused by the influenza virus. Symptoms often begin abruptly and typically include a fever, sore throat, cough, stuffy or runny nose, body aches and headache. These symptoms usually last about a week but can last longer in people whose immune systems are weakened due to other health conditions.

How Do I Know Whether I Have the Flu?

Flu symptoms can include a fever, sore throat, cough, stuffy or runny nose, body aches and headache. These symptoms usually last about one week, or longer in people whose immune systems are weakened.

This table give some general guidelines to tell the difference between cold, flu and lower respiratory infections. Always consult your doctor if your symptoms persist.

Signs and symptoms Cold Influenza Bacterial Infections
Onset Gradual Sudden Gradual; occasionally acute
Fever Rare Characteristic, high (>101 ºF), lasting 3-4 days Characteristic, high (>101 ºF)
Cough Hacking Nonproductive, can become severe Can be dry or productive
Headache Rare Prominent Sometimes
Myalgia (body aches) Slight Usual: often severe Sometimes
Fatigue; weakness Very mild Last 2-3 weeks Common
Extreme exhaustion Rare Early and prominent Rare
Chest discomfort Mild to moderate Common Common
Stuffy nose Common Sometimes Rare
Sneezing Usual Sometimes Rare
Sore throat Common Sometimes Sometimes

How Do I Prevent the Flu?

Get Vaccinated. Each year, researchers identify the three strains that are most likely to cause the majority of flu illness that season. They develop a flu vaccine from those strains. Getting vaccinated in the late fall and early winter can enable your body's immune system to develop antibodies against the strains of flu included in the vaccine.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), getting vaccinated early -- as soon as the vaccine becomes available -- provides the best protection for you and your community. However, they still urge high risk people who have not been vaccinated by the end of November to get vaccinated in December or January, as flu activity continues well into the spring.

Who Should Be Immunized?

The CDC encourages anyone over 6 months old to get vaccinated. If you are are allergic to chicken eggs, have ever had Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), or have had severe reactions or illness due to past flu shots, talk to your doctor before getting the vaccine. If you are currently ill, wait until your symptoms lessen and then get vaccinated.

These groups of people have an even higher risk of getting complications from the flu and are most strongly urged to get the flu vaccine:1

  • Children ages 6 months to 19 years old
  • Adults ages 65 years and older
  • People with certain chronic medical conditions such as heart, lung or kidney disease, or a weakened immune system
  • Women who will be pregnant during the flu season
  • People who live in nursing homes or long-term care facilities
  • Health-care workers
  • People who come in contact with children younger than 6 months (such as childcare workers)
  • People who live with any of the above high-risk individuals

What If I Do Not Get a Flu Vaccine This Year?

There are still steps you can take to help avoid the flu:

  • Keep your distance. If you know someone who has the flu, give them plenty of space. If you are experiencing flu symptoms, avoid contact with others. The virus is spread through airborne transmission or personal contact. Never visit hospitals or nursing homes when you are sick.
  • Wash your hands! The flu virus can survive on doorknobs, keyboards and other objects. Touch them, then touch your nose and mouth, and you've got it.
  • Avoid sharing towels, cups or utensils.
  • Avoid second-hand smoke. If you smoke, try to quit.
  • Eat healthy, drink plenty of water and get enough sleep.

There are also prescription medications that have been approved for prevention of flu symptoms, for those who are unable to take the vaccine. Ask your doctor for more information about these medications.

How Can I Treat the Flu?

Unfortunately, there isn't a cure for the flu, but your doctor can prescribe medications for treating the symptoms. There are also over-the-counter remedies that may help control your symptoms. Before using an over-the-counter medication, it is always wise to check with your doctor or pharmacist to be sure the product is right for you.

When and Where Can I Get a Flu Shot Locally?

Flu vaccinations are typically available for a modest fee through your doctor's office, your local Health Department or local drugstores. Check with your insurance company to see whether this may also be a covered benefit in your plan.

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