This respiratory infection is often confused with a cold, and vice versa. Learn the important differences between thetwo and how to treat influenza.

Flu (Influenza) Definition
The flu is a respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus.

Causes
The flu is caused by an influenza virus. The two main kinds of influenza viruses are called Type A and Type B.
You can get the flu if you breathe in infected droplets from someone who is carrying the virus. Or if you touch a contaminated surface, you may transfer the virus from your hand to your mouth or nose.

Risk Factors
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.

- Living or working in crowded group conditions, such as:

  • Nursing home
  • School
  • Military forces
  • Day care center
  • Age: Newborn babies and the elderly
  • Women in the third trimester of pregnancy
  • Diabetes
  • Weakened immune systems, such as in:
  • Cancer patients
  • AIDS patients
  • People taking immunosuppressive drugs
  • Chronic lung, heart, kidney, or blood conditions

Symptoms
Influenza symptoms start very abruptly. They include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Severe muscle aches
  • Severe fatigue
  • Headache
  • Decreased appetite

After several days, the following symptoms develop:

  • Runny nose, nasal congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Water eyes
  • Sore throat
  • Cough

Diagnosis
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. Diagnosis of the flu is usually based on symptoms, and by knowing that influenza is already striking other people in a given community. Samples of nasal secretions or a throat swab can be sent to a laboratory to confirm the diagnosis. Blood tests can be performed, but they take longer and are more expensive.

Treatment
Treatment may include:

Anti-viral Medicines
These do not cure the flu, but may help relieve symptoms and decrease the duration of the illness. These medications must be taken within 48 hours of the first symptoms.

Bed Rest
It is important to get plenty of rest when your body is fighting the flu.

Fluids
Drink a lot of liquids, such as water, juice, and non-caffeinated tea.

Over-the-counter Pain Relievers

These medications are used to control fever and treat aches and painsAdults can use acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and/or aspirin.

Note: Aspirin is not recommended for children with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving a child aspirin.

Decongestants
Decongestants are available as pills or nasal sprays. If you use a nasal spray, don't use it longer than 3-5 days, or you may experience an increase in congestion called "rebound" when you stop using the spray.

Cough Medicines
These include:

  • Over-the-counter cough medicines
  • Prescription cough medicines
  • Cough drops

Prevention
Good hand washing and careful hygiene may help you avoid the flu. However, the best way to prevent the flu is to get a yearly flu shot.

Flu Shot
The flu shot is usually available in the fall and early winter. Flu shots help most people avoid getting the flu. Some people who have had the shot will still get the flu, but the illness may be milder and shorter.

If you are at high risk for complications from the flu, you are strongly advised to get the flu shot each year. You should get the flu shot if:

  • You have diabetes
  • You have a chronic lung, heart, or blood disease
  • You are over age 50
  • You have a weakened immune system
  • You'll be more than three months pregnant during flu season
  • You live in a nursing home
  • You are a health care worker working with the above high-risk groups

If you haven't had the flu shot, and you know that lots of people in your community are coming down with the flu, you can talk to your doctor about taking an antiviral medication. These medications can be taken for about two weeks, and may decrease your chance of getting the flu. If you do end up getting the flu, you might get a lighter, shorter case of it.

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